White paper used 20-year-old study

March 7, 2003

Evidence cited in the higher education white paper is more than 20 years out of date and presents a misleading picture of the relationship between research and teaching excellence, an expert said this week.

Michael Bassey, academic secretary of the British Educational Research Association, said a "meta analysis" quoted in last month's white paper was a study carried out by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh between 1949 and 1992, but mostly in the 1970s at US institutions.

"While I doubt this was a deliberate attempt to mislead, the use of this paper to promote non-research universities cannot take account of changes in British higher education over the past ten years," Professor Bassey said.

The white paper states that while good scholarship is essential for good teaching, "it is not clear that it is necessary to be active in cutting-edge research to be an excellent teacher".

The statement is borne out by the Hattie and Marsh study, the white paper says.

But Professor Bassey takes issue with the use of the research to support teaching-only institutions. "The individual may be research-free and an excellent teacher, but unless such individuals are within a department with a strong research culture, how are they to be aware of the latest research and thinking?"

Professor Hattie is now at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He said: "Our paper has been used for almost every stance possible and too often ignores the messages and conclusions. Our study demonstrated the status quo and does not reflect on what should be the case. We concluded that the very concept of a university implies that there should be a higher relationship (between teaching and research) and implored universities to work hard to enhance the relationship."

The white paper also quotes more recent research published in 2000 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which concluded that "not every teacher needs to be engaged in research but might be expected to engage in scholarship to inform their work as teachers".

Professor Bassey said: "In envisaging non-research universities the government is extrapolating from 'not every teacher' to 'no teacher'. The problem is that the idea of research has come to be symbolised by big expensive research, which of course cannot go on all over the place. But there is a very large amount of small scale inexpensive research which can and should continue across the sector. This is a crucial distinction the government seems to have failed to grasp with potentially catastrophic consequences."

A spokesperson from the Department for Education and Skills said the white paper took account of a wide range of research. "The department is continually seeking to improve the evidence base on which it derives its policies both through its own research strategy and by keeping abreast of research conducted by others."

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