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”.