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 (2)

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.
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.