The big match - Ivy vs Scumbag

As moves towards an elite higher-education league gain momentum, Ted Wragg looks at the dangers in a divided system of superversities and subversities
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There is nothing new in the proposal that we should concentrate our research resources on a small number of "superversities" to compete successfully in the supposed international league of higher education. The only recent novelty is that the Russell Group of would-be Ivy League vice-chancellors actually holds meetings nowadays.

In May 1987 a committee chaired by ER Oxburgh, the eminent professor of mineralogy and petrology at Cambridge, proposed that there should be three levels of earth science departments. Ten or a dozen level-one centres with about 30 staff each would be funded to teach and research at all levels. Level-two centres would offer teaching up to MSc, have 15 or more academic staff and only have access to top-quality research equipment through a level-one centre. Level-three centres would have six staff or fewer and only cover first or second-year undergraduate teaching.

The same year the research councils reported to the late, great Kenneth Baker. They described the Oxburgh report as "a valuable example of the sort of concentration necessary in the experimental sciences" and also proposed three-class Victorian railway carriages. About 15 universities, the Pullman coaches, known as "type R", would offer research and teaching across the board. The second-class carriages, called "type X", would teach several subjects, but offer research only in some. The proletariat, "type T", would be "teaching-only" institutions. Ninety per cent of research funds would go to the top two categories.

The first Research Assessment Exercise carried out by the University Grants Committee in 1986 did indeed use three categories: "above average" (with or without a star), "average" and "below average". Later versions in 1989, 1992 and the present one in 1996 extended these to five and then seven categories.

Proponents of the superversity - often members of one of the institutions hoping to win the badge - argue that concentration guarantees that money will be used successfully. At present some three-quarters of research funding is earned by about a quarter of universities, so an unofficial Ivy League already exists. However, it is making the "unofficial" position "official" that causes dismay.

The advantage of the present system, imperfect though it may be, is that every university department stands a chance. If Swineshire University decided to back its astrology department with money for staff, buildings, books, equipment and research studentships, it may improve its research rating, earn more funding money, and one day become a leading international centre.

Were Swineshire to be "officially" in the Scumbag League of institutions not funded for research - the "subversities" - then this would be extraordinarily difficult.

I wonder whether such distinguished universities as Warwick would have achieved their current success had they been denied access to Ivy League prospects when they first became universities.

There are several reasons why reifying Ivy League status is a rotten idea, not only for research but also for teaching. To give a whole university a single label is to conceal many differences within it. Although some places achieve uniformly high or low grades, many have a mixed profile. Excellence in physics is no guarantee of excellence in philosophy.

There are also quite different considerations to be taken into account in the various disciplines in higher education. Items of scientific equipment costing millions of pounds may indeed have to be limited to a few top- quality departments. But much of the research in arts and social science is labour-intensive, as likely to be the work of individuals and small groups sitting in the library or poring over documents as the combined efforts of a team working in a high-tech laboratory.

A research decision would have an impact on all higher education work, including teaching. Although the money for teaching and research is supposed to be separable, much of it goes into the salaries of people required to do both.

We have shifted rapidly from an elite to a mass system of higher education, and staff morale has plummeted as staff-student ratios have soared. The subversities would soon be full of demoralised staff, denied hope in their disciplines.

The proposal to establish an Ivy League of nine or 10 universities has supposedly found favour with Gillian Shephard and is likely to be endorsed in her submission to the Dearing Committee, which is looking at the future of higher education. I am not surprised. For a government committed to cutting public spending, such a crude pour encourager les autres policy would be a godsend.

A small clutch of superversities would be funded at marginally more than their present level, while the subversities operated in increasing squalor. Ministers would urge the latter to stop whingeing and fight to get into the Premier League. But they would be denied the opportunity to win cash to improve their ground, or buy Alan Shearer.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University, a former president of the British Educational Research Association, and was a chairman in the 1992 Research Assessment Exercise.