Now for the sack race

Funding universities on the basis of research excellence is threatening academic jobs and even institutions. Maureen O'Connor reports
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The Independent Online
If a school is forced to make large numbers of staff redundant, its parents and children are soon out on the streets with placards, protesting bitterly. In higher education it is different. "Voluntary" redundancies, early retirements and other forms of retrenchment have gone on since 1981 almost unremarked by the general public. This year is no exception, and the situation is getting nasty.

What is making the difference is the dual system of university funding which allocates one tranche of money on the basis of student numbers and another on the basis of research excellence. Some universities which have traditionally relied heavily on research funding, essentially the "old" universities, have been thrown into turmoil as their "excellence ratings" have fallen and money has been summarily removed.

The Research Assessment Exercise, which makes the crucial judgements, was intended to broaden access to research funding across old and new university sectors when bids were opened up to all institutions in 1992. In fact the lion's share of the funding, 25 per cent, goes to just four institutions - Oxford, Cambridge and University and Imperial Colleges, London - which notch up substantial numbers of departments with high 5 or 5* ratings.

What is causing serious problems for some of the middle-ranking universities is the financial cost of not doing as well as expected in the latest league table. The loss of funding for a large department that drops from a Grade 3, which is funded, to a Grade 2, which is not, can be in the region of pounds 500,000. The effect on jobs is likely to be dramatic. The Association of University Teachers, which represents most "old university" lecturers, says that in most places the swords have been sharpened, and in some they are now unsheathed.

Concern for students as well as about job losses for its members fuels the AUT's campaign. It argues that increased pressure on staff to excel at research risks damaging teaching and pastoral care. It is a point of view that is gaining support from the Higher Education Funding Council, which allocates university grants. The chief executive, Brian Fender, warned recently of the danger of research performance overshadowing that of teaching.

There has always been a tension between teaching and research demands in academic life. But what little hard evidence there is suggests that this is getting worse. Alan Jenkins, of Oxford Brookes University, surveyed 14 geography departments in old and new universities. He concluded that the pressure of the RAE had led many of them to concentrate on research at the expense of teaching. In contrast, the assessment of teaching quality has made little impact, he says.

The effect of the latest RAE on individual institutions varies. In Wales, RAE funding problems come on top of a financial crisis which has left almost all the constituent parts of the University of Wales in trouble. Representatives of the higher education teacher unions in Wales are meeting their funding council today to discuss real-terms cuts in budgets of almost 10 per cent over the next three years, significantly more than in England or Scotland.

In those circumstances, even if they do relatively well in the RAE, universities can find themselves worse off. "What is happening is that the RAE is putting increasing pressure on institutions already strapped for cash," says Dr Chris Price of Aberystwyth, where a large department previousy ranked 3 has dropped to a 2 and staff reductions are threatened. "So far everything is being done on a voluntary basis here, but it is being made clear to staff that everyone should be doing research. And though I agree with that in theory,

you do have to ask about the importance of teaching."

At Swansea, which may have to lose 100 jobs by the end of this year, Steve Bradley, the Association of University Teachers' representative, feels that the small size of most Welsh institutions, and even their distance from London, militates against high-quality research bringing in extra funds. "Small universities are going to find it harder and harder to hold their places in the rankings. Swansea has improved, but so have others, so we have been running to stand still. While some universities go into an upward spiral, able to attract staff and students, others are going into a downward spiral, and could even close. This puts immense pressure on staff. They are pushed into short-term work in order to get papers published, and this is condoned because it is the only way that the money can be increased."

The rumour mill has been working overtime trying to assess the size and the importance of the research "transfer market" in which universities, like football teams, compete for stars to boost their ranking in the research "league". Dr Bruce Christianson, of the University of Hertfordshire's computer science research team (rated 4), says there is little doubt that some universities are trying to "buy in" excellence, but he doubts the long-term value of the strategy. "The number of outstanding people is finite, and good research depends on a team as much as on an individual, and has to be built on an institution's existing strengths," he says. "I don't think the star system will work in universities any more than it works in football."

The new universities and colleges of higher education are less involved in the current stresses caused by the RAE. They have always received the bulk of their funding on the basis of student numbers, and an addition for high-quality research is still regarded as a welcome windfall. But they are not immune to the pressure, because some of the things they are good at - consultancy, work with industry and the professions, the development of teaching materials - do not easily fit the RAE criteria.

Alan Jenkins is concerned that the RAE's narrow definitions of research excellence will have a damaging effect on the old polytechnic sector. It is difficult, he thinks, for some subjects and interdisciplinary areas to fall in with their criteria. The emphasis is on a narrow range of work, little of which is of direct relevance to students. The RAE itself needs radical reform, he suggests.

Some universities have tried to resolve the conflict by moving towards teaching-only appointments. So far these have mainly been for courses outside the mainstream, but the mathematics department at Warwick, with a 5* for research, has just advertised for an academic whose primary interest will be undergraduate teaching.

A poll by the Association of University Teachers gives some support to this approach, in suggesting that a quarter of lecturers now feel that you can be a good university teacher without undertaking research. But there are problems still to be worked out between universities and the unions, on how and at what level such posts should be remunerated. And splitting staff between researchers and teachers does not solve the other fundamental question, which concerns the economist Shanti Chakravarty. He works at the University of Wales at Bangor, where there are only 3,000 students, and can see no prospect of pushing research ratings up to 5. The RAE, he says, measures output, but may in fact make it harder to do original work, and certainly cannot account for the generation of ideas. "Where are the next great leaps forward coming from?" he asks.