Why the future is looking collegiate

August 1, 1997

I recently chaired a higher education foundation study day in Oxford on the relationship between teaching and research in the modern university. It was a think tank of 30 invited delegates representing Oxbridge, the traditional and modern universities and institutions of higher education. Disciplines ranged from medicine to medieval history.

A number of issues emerged as key to the health of our university system. The inequality of funding between old and new universities in relation to research and scholarship was acknowledged. Yet, it was recognised that a radical change in the balance of funding between the old and the new would damage the entire system. The pressure on the research assessment exercise could not justifiably withstand the progress that certain institutions had made, nor could the research councils ignore the quality demonstrated by some modern institutions. Further, the RAE timescale was perceived to be detrimental to mature research output. It was producing a culture of quick-return research rather than considered, reflective work.

It became clear that fundamental questions remain unanswered. What is the difference between research and scholarship? Is internationally-recognised research necessarily always better than nationally-recognised research? Is it true that within even our oldest universities research has always been a distinctive element of university identity? A distinguished historian claimed that was certainly not the case. Yet could we conceive of university teaching without research and scholarship? A deputy vice chancellor reminded us such moribund institutions were weeded out in the 1970s. Scholarship and research nurtures teaching. Alternatively, as the head of a 5-star department noted, the student learning experience can nurture and inspire research. Let us move, he suggested, to a learning-led culture of research.

What is the concept of the university for the new millennium? Will we be able to realise Dearing's 20-year vision in the context of global higher education? Do we move towards the virtual university model? Is personal student interaction essential in the learning process? The Open University representative talked of the continued necessity of the face-to-face tutorial and the coming together of student peer groups.

We cannot start again without irreparably damaging prized institutions. Yet how can we support the excellence of the few in an egalitarian higher education system? If the answer is closer regional cooperation, will that result in an inevitable financial movement towards amalgamation? Can provincial cities, for example, continue to have two universities of unequal size and funding? And if we create mega-universities, are we not in danger of losing the identity of the institution and student loyalty towards that identity?

Might not regionalism reduce the healthy side of competitiveness and therefore quality? What will happen to collegiality? Is it right that, as we extend the participation rate, we reduce the quality of educational experience, even while we maintain and enhance the learning process?

All this did not leave us pessimistic. The fact that the issues were raised implied that answers were possible. A deep concern and the determination to find solutions was demonstrated. I had a strong feeling that the era of aggressive competition between universities was over and that the concept of collaboration in thinking and planning was already accepted.

We may, for example, have to follow the financial logic of further amalgamations but, if we do, we will find a way to create a sense of identity within those institutions. As we deliberated in an Oxford college, I wondered whether the collegiate system, dependent on subject areas rather than on residency, might be an answer.

Michael Scott is pro vice chancellor, De Montfort University.

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