When everyone's a winner

April 28, 1995

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

The Research Assessment Exercise has become a dominant feature of the higher education landscape. Individuals, departments and institutions struggle against many competing pressures to find resources, time and space to improve assessment rankings and increase associated funding. But the pot is fixed: the global sum available for distribution is already determined. In a zero sum game, not all players can be winners. What of the losers, their expectations and aspirations? What of the relationship between teaching and research, between different types of university?

The context of the 1992 exercise was the demolition of the binary line. For the first time, the former polytechnics could compete with the established universities for institutional research funding. Turning a blind eye to the Government's desire, not many years before, to create a differentiated sector of R (research-led), X (mixed) and T (teaching-led) institutions, they welcomed talk of a "level playing field".

The results of the 1992 exercise were something of a shock. Many of the leading research universities were dismayed that so much research was taking place in the former polytechnics, and so much funding was going to be allocated to them. Most older universities realised that they were susceptible to competition from "below" as well as above. Staff in the former polytechnics who had struggled to maintain research activity, with little or no institutional funding, felt rewarded and could buy out teaching time, attend more conferences and seminars, and purchase equipment and facilities.

These shocks have prompted frenetic efforts in the build-up to the 1996 exercise. Batches of research professors, fellows and assistants have been recruited; five-star rated performers have been bought, poached and head-hunted - a process facilitated by promotional blockages in the older universities.

The Government's intention is to foster and reward the "excellent" and to concentrate that in a few institutions. If the nature of the exercise in 1996 were the same as in 1992, and, on average, institutions were devoting resources proportional to their 1992 outcomes, the results in 1996 could be roughly the same. But 1996 is different from 1992 in several ways: * The scale has been elongated with the addition of 5* and the separation of 3 into 3A and 3B; * The pressure of selectivity and concentration, abetted by the lobbying of the Russell and 94 Groups of universities, is likely to increase the funding at the top end of the scale; * Those universities aiming to be research-intensive have devoted proportionally more additional resources to their efforts.

It does not take sophisticated modelling techniques to determine the likely overall outcomes. The funding councils and the Government will notch up a success: the quality of research will be shown to have improved, without any additional resources having been provided. The elite universities will do well, but will continue to complain about (any) funding going to "lower grade" research. Several of the other older universities will have significant cuts in their funding. Most of the former polytechnics will be net losers. There will undoubtedly be some spectacular, and well-publicised, success stories and changes of ranking but overall the effect will be to further polarise the system between research and teaching.

This polarisation is exacerbated by the differentiating effects of the divergent funding regimes for teaching and research which, through the downward pressure on per capita funding for teaching, erodes the time necessary for quality research and forces, at the level of individuals and departments, clearer choices about whether they are teaching- or research-led.

For many staff, particularly those in the new universities, the impact will be further demoralisation. Motivated by the 1992 exercise, and further encouraged by departmental and institutional managers, they will see their strenuous efforts rewarded by a decrease rather than increase in resources.

Very few now argue that at the level of the individual, teaching and research must be combined - we all know good teachers who do not research, and active researchers who are poor teachers. Correlations between high assessment rankings and "excellent" teaching quality assessment outcomes are suggestive of linkage at the departmental or subject level, but caution should be exercised as anecdotal evidence accumulates that "excellent" outcomes are more likely to be withheld if areas do not have such rankings. If these correlations are indicative of causal connection, the arguments for polarisation are severely undermined.

What unites teaching and research is learning - both for staff and students. Good teaching and tutoring requires at least awareness of research, and, often neglected, research can be inspired and enriched by the engagement with a diversity of students. But it is perhaps at the supra-institutional level, at the regional level, that the unity of teaching and research can be recomposed.

Research is frequently already organised on a collaborative, cross-institutional basis and research communities are seldom, if ever, confined to a single university or college. There is also recognition that high-quality research requires good infrastructural and managerial support, and evidence that overhead costs, including library, facilities and equipment expenditure, can be contained through concentration. Harnessing sectoral and wider political, economic, social and cultural forces of regionalisation, designating existing "centres of excellence", perhaps departments with 4 and 5 RAE ratings, as regional centres could create a new, powerful research framework enabling wider participation by able staff and a greater capacity to respond to regional needs.

Such centres would provide the focus and locus for research-active staff in a particular subject or area from institutions throughout a region. Staff could be contracted or seconded, on a full- or part-time basis, and centres would be expected to establish mechanisms of dissemination and communication to inform all staff - teaching and research - of the work and findings of the centre and of general research activity in the field. Hence both higher levels of involvement and scholarship could be achieved.

Additionally such centres could enable a more focused method for building partnerships with companies, communities, agencies and authorities in a region. Government regional offices, hopefully including the Department for Education, could establish regional research advisory boards with representatives of this diversity of potential users and beneficiaries to suggest projects and programmes, facilitate innovation and interaction, and stimulate discussion and intellectual development. Bids for and the receipt of funding could be channelled through the centres, enabling greater efficiency of overheads and improvement of quality control and enhancement. All too often, excellent research staff, often relatively junior, in non-intensive research universities and colleges complain of senior staff without significant research experience acting as a filter. The new arrangements could overcome this problem and lead to the development of a larger and higher quality cadre of researchers.

The development of new technologies and wider processes of deinstitutionalisation are beginning to reinforce academics' identification with their subject or interdisciplinary area rather than with the particular organisation by which they are employed. This proposal builds on this trend and provides the conditions for a democratisation of research in which the criteria for evaluation and funding could be broadened beyond the current Government's short-term and narrow confines of "wealth creation".

Research is a long-term and international activity. Regional research centres could be a locus of post-modernity: acting locally, thinking globally.

David Albury is a research fellow in the Centre for the Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences, London School of Economics, and is writing a book on the future of higher education.

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