Universities not focusing on teaching, says ex-minister

Many universities are “still not focused enough on teaching” and are using £9,000 fees to subsidise research.

September 24, 2013

That is the suggestion of former education secretary Charles Clarke, who told a fringe event at the Labour conference that the claim that research improves teaching quality at universities is a “false debate”.

The event, hosted by the Association of Business Schools, looked at the question “Is it possible to balance the demands of students with the needs of business?”

Mr Clarke notoriously said in his time as education secretary under Tony Blair that “universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change”.

At the Labour conference event, he argued that higher education could not go back to a “Stalinist” system of central planning. But at the same time, he added, the sector did need to take account of the needs of the economy and the labour market.

“It remains a criticism I would make, despite the National Student Survey, that…many, many universities are still not focused enough on teaching as opposed to research, in the way that they determine their priorities,” said Mr Clarke, a former president of the National Union of Students.

He said there was a “quite serious issue, particularly with fees as high as they are” about where the investment in higher education was going.

“Is all that money really going to teaching quality in a wide variety of different ways? Or is it effectively a means of subsiding research?” he said.

Mr Clarke said there was a “false debate…where people argue high-quality research is necessary for high-quality teaching.

“I do not accept that that relationship is anything like as clear as is [claimed to be] the case.”

He called for a “return to teaching as the core of what universities do”.

Mr Clarke said there are “a lot of people in the education world who are pretty contemptuous of the work world – they don’t see it as anything to do with them”.

But equally there were people in business who are “contemptuous of the education world”, he added.

Mr Clarke also warned that postgraduate funding was a “massive issue”, as study that had to be “subsidised by the bank of mum and dad” was “socially divisive”.

He said he had recommended to the 2010 Browne review that the “student loan system for undergraduates should be extended to MAs”.


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Reader's comments (13)

I agree 100 per cent with Charles Clarke. Outside of natural sciences and applied engineering, most academic research is sheer bunk! teaching should be top priority at all but a few true centres of research excellence
In the modern student fees market, HEIs are necessarily increasingly having to develop the relevant teaching expertise for courses to be accredited by the professional and commercial bodies, with some even becoming involved with level 4 to 7 Higher Apprenticeships and CPD . Just a few top ranked universities are able to tap into the large scale research opportunities of the sort that may shift the balance of academic priorities towards research funding generation. Perhaps such institutions should be differently organised accordingly.
I generally agree with the above two contributors. I also agree that the top ranked universities-I would consider no more than 25 of them organised as research intensive universities with a formal structure, so that their teaching and research go hand-in-hand and the rest should concentrate mainly on teaching.
Regarding the previous comment, personally I would go as far as the most highly ranked research universities restrict themselves to p/g level teaching unless they have very deep teaching resources to spare. With limited government resources for HE research, I suppose such a group would likely be less than a dozen or so large specialist research HEIs, perhaps also having managing responsibility for consortia of other public and private research inputs as necessary. Generally though, teaching at all levels and modes, personal research/scholarship and publishing, augmented with course administration and consultancy etc. would be the expected norm.
There appears to be a fundamental misconception of what it is that Universities actually do. A University is an institution of high-level education AND research, and it benefits the society as a whole on multiple levels, however much some people seem to have an interest to belittle and to ridicule this, for whatever scornful reasons. (Nothing ever changes: jokes about scholars are as old as scholarship itself. We can deal with it) There is one thing that Universities are not, however: they are not schools - and this proposal is sadly mistaken when it suggests 'back to the sources': those were not the sources of the University system. What the supporters of this misguided view seem to propose can best be expressed in a comparison. Imagine a plumber's workshop, funded by those who benefit from their services. Now those who benefit from their services decide that they're not happy with the charges, and they also have the power to say: we no longer pay you that. Furthermore, they have the power to say: let those pay who train to become the next generation of plumbers, for they too will get rich from our money. Then you survey those, whom you have just charged extortionate rates, and ask them how happy they are with the training, and with their job prospects - to hold it against those who have the least say in this anyway. To make things worse, they create and support a public discourse that, free from any rational, quantifiable evidence, suggests that plumbers are a superfluous, lazy bunch anyway. The whipped cream and cherry on top of this is, then, a proposal that suggests, that what plumbers *really* should do is to focus on the education of the next generation - after all, they charge them so much: why should they continue to practise the other aspects to their profession? Doesn't compute, you say? No, it certainly doesn't. So why should it make any sense when it comes to the University system, a system that supports the sole sustainable resource the UK has, the brainpower of the next generation? It is high time to address this attitude in a robust manner, for it is not sustainable and in fact very damaging, nationally and internationally (and not just in terms of reputation). At the same time, it is important to address the issue of false utilitarianism, suggesting that some subjects are more important than others. One may have one's preferences and inclinations, but there is very little actual evidence, economic or philosophical, for the biased, propagandistic view that some subjects are more important than others: it is the co-existence of the multitude of subjects that makes Universities strong and successful.
In my earlier comment I suggested 25 research-intensive institutions with research and teaching going hand-in-hand. The latter obviously means PG teaching, but then the norm in the UK top institutions are the rigorous UG courses. The dozen suggested may be a smaller base. As for plumbers, there is a well known academy in London which trains good plumbers, none of them is unemployed, and all of them are earning very good money.. I see in my own own residential area a large number of young graduates , except a small core there, the rest are looking for any jobs,even one year after their graduation. Such a contrast with this plumbing academy and their students! Yes, some subjects are more important than others, the small core I mentioned above, walked into jobs the day after they completed their course, just like the plumbers above!!
They would most definitely be unemployed under the conditions I've just described, however. 'Walking into a job' - is that what university is all about then? That would have to be the least intellectual, most depressing definition I've heard (yet). Should we really fall for that view, or should we denounce it as what it really is: a politics-imposed agenda, incongruous with what universities really are (and should be). As for the definition of 'important subjects', well - important to whom? I'm still waiting for the assessment criteria that are not haphazard and purely based on convenient, ideology-driven considerations, preferably making a somewhat judicious economic case (without adequately factoring in the capital that the Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences in fact manage to generate). Certain subjects may not be important to you (and I do accept that, although I am reasonably sure that your life, too, benefits from their existence - whether you are ready admit it or not), but then your personal opinion is not necessarily the most appropriate yardstick for determining the importance of academic subjects. I'm not suggesting that mine is, either, by the way - far from it. But then - what is to be gained from having this debate, anyway - it is a clear case of 'divide et impera', sweetened with the prospect of pots of money for the academic flavour of the month, and often we academics are foolish enough to fall for that trick, sacrificing intellectual cohesion while providing a spectacle for those who just love to have a good laugh at us.
Presumably accreditation of an HEI's u/g courses by subject related professional or industrial/commercial bodies e.g. Chartered Engineering Institutes etc., would in large part address the above educational quality and/or employability concerns. Students that choose unaccreditable or unaccredited courses for personnal interest or altruistic reasons are likely to experience employability dissappointments, unless they can demonstrate exceptional intellectual abilities, I suppose.
"Walking into a job' - is that what university is all about then? That would have to be the least intellectual, most depressing definition I've heard (yet)." Typical academic view point of self-serving observation. If I were a student who has a loan of £50K plus after 3 years of my university education, and have joined my neighbour's son who has just completed his GCSE, and work in a fast food chain for minimum wage, and hours there too are not guaranteed as many graduates like me are competing for this job, then I would resent the above smug observation from an academic who wants to keep his job by proclaiming to me: "learning is for its own sake, forget your £50K loan sit in a park and enjoy your fruits of learning". It is an insult. While UK students study subjects in universities which do not help them with the right skills to get jobs, the industry and other sectors continuously look for those outside the country who have the skills they need. We as academics need to grow up and accept this harsh truth.
Quite the contrary - we need to change this 'truth' (as in: the status quo). If I were a student who has a loan of £50k, I would vote for a policy that is less inept than the present one, and many other countries show us rather nicely how it can be done successfully.
"If I were a student who has a loan of £50k, I would vote for a policy that is less inept than the present one, and many other countries show us rather nicely how it can be done successfully" Yeah, Yeah and Yeah. Changing the status quo? Through a Russian -style revolution? What an unreal thinking! Let academics run their union properly before suggesting of voting for anything else.
Odd that nobody in these comments appears to be challenging the utterly silly claim that the link between research and teaching is not just debatable but a "false debate" (how can a claim be a debate by the way). I'm afraid Mr Clarke is simply ten years behind the research (rather ironically). The consensus that emerged on this topic near the turn of the century, that there was a near zero correlation between teaching quality and lecturers' research activity (e.g. Marsh & Hattie, 2002), is now being discredited by more recent studies. The problem with that previous view was that the measure of teaching quality used was almost always student feedback. As most of you will know, student feedback is a pretty terrible measure of teaching quality received (e.g. Ballam & Shannon, 2010) and may actually be negatively related to long-term student learning (Carrell & West, 2010). When studies have used a more objective measure of teaching quality they have found a strong relationship between staff research activity and teaching quality. See for example Galbraith & Merrill (2012) who used student performance on exams (testing module learning outcomes). In this study the strongest predictors of teaching quality/student performance were whether staff were research active and whether they had a PhD. Please note that this was conducted in a teaching intensive university where 45% of staff did not have PhDs. So it is not the case that the relationship only holds in the top 25 institutions. The bottom line is that lecturers who are research active are, all else being equal, better teachers. As a result, this whole debate is a rather silly one. Research in universities doesn't detract from teaching, it underpins it. My apologies to my colleagues who do not do research and who will no doubt be affronted by my comments. I fear the evidence is not on your side nor on Mr Clarke's.
I couldn't agree more with what you say, Dr Humayun, you are absolutely right. The combination of research and teaching is vital, just as much as Leibniz's concept of scholarship and science that lives up to the ideal of 'theoria cum praxi'. Both principles are non-negotiable for any respectable University.

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