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British higher education is twice as big as it was a decade ago - and more than twice as obsessed by research. At first sight this is a paradox. The main business of a mass system should be teaching. Research should be reserved to a premier division of elite universities. Instead the opposite seems to have happened. Why?

There are three reasons. First, as long as full-time undergraduates remain capped, improved research performance is one of the best ways to "grow the business". The regular research assessment exercise (RAE), last conducted two years ago and due to be re-run in - probably - 2001, rewards universities and colleges that get top grades with substantial additional resources.

Second, the ending of the binary division between universities and polytechnics led to a crisis of institutional identity. Before 1992, whether institutions liked them or not, they had prescribed missions. Now the old certainties have been removed.

All the pre-1992 universities, by definition, were genteel research-and- teaching institutions. Now some are being squeezed between the condescension of the Russell group of a dozen-or-so top research universities and the arriviste pretensions, in their (private) view, of the former polytechnics. For them no longer to be recognised as a proper research university is to become declasse. At the same time, the post-1992 universities are victims of their own brand of anxiety - which will "make the grade" and be accepted as peers by the "old" universities, and which will be condemned to being universities in name only?

Third, the whole character of research is changing fast. Once it was a "pure" enterprise, the pursuit of science and scholarship through publication in peer-reviewed journals, acquisition of research council grants, proliferation of PhD studentships and, for starry performers, participation in the international conference circuit. Today research is a much more hybrid activity, embracing student projects, action research, industrial consultancy, technology transfer, even political activism and intellectual exhibitionism in the mass media. Old demarcations between "pure" and "applied" research are breaking down. As a result, research has become a game that many more people, and institutions, can play.

The first of these reasons for the obsession with research can easily be removed, even reversed. All that is needed is for institutions to be given premium funding for excellence in teaching - or, if that is too complicated, to reduce the rewards of the RAE. The second is harder to neutralise, because status rather than money is at stake in the post-binary identity wars. The third, of course, reflects deep-flowing secular changes in how scientific knowledge is defined in today's society .

So the present consultation being conducted by the funding councils about the future of the RAE is a funny business. Many of the questions are not really questions at all, because the RAE has to continue (and, probably, in a broadly similar form). Others are about much more than they seem to be about. Essentially, they are seeking views about measures designed to keep the new universities in their place. Some of these measures are impossibly crude - the Dearing proposal that they should be fobbed off with vestigial "scholarship" funding, or the suggestion that institutions should have to put down deposits and forfeit them if they fail to make the grade. Others are more subtle, such as stretching the gap between RAEs (because everyone "knows" which are the real research departments, and why waste time finding out what is "obvious").

But neo-binary revanchisme will not work. One reason is that the 1992 decision to "promote" the polytechnics is irreversible. But the main reason is that, to create a premier division of research universities, it would be necessary to rob not just the new universities but many of the old universities. Even if all the research money were taken away from the former polytechnics, which would be as unfeasible as it would be unfair, it would not add up to enough to keep Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and the other Russell Group universities in the manner to which they believe they should be accustomed (certainly compared with their international peers like Harvard or Berkeley). Instead, the money would have to come from cutting research funding at, say, Reading or East Anglia. The RAE wars are not really between old and new universities, but between the old universities.

But there is a more important consideration. Research today is far too heterogeneous an activity to be measured by the present RAE - not because it is overrated at the expense of teaching, but because it is too important to be reduced to old-style science and scholarship. Perhaps we need a new kind of RAE for a new kind of research.

The writer is vice chancellor of Kingston University.

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