Your views: Distorted picture of Queen's

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The Independent Online
IN HIS letter defending the Queen's University, Belfast, Academic Plan (Your Views, Education,10 September) Pro-Vice-chancellor Andrew referred to the "discontinuation of a small number of subjects which are no longer viable". It is hard not to feel some sympathy for any academic charged with putting an acceptable spin on some very hasty and unacceptable corporate decisions but Professor Andrew's use of the word "viable" in this context is so esoteric that some explanation is necessary to avert misunderstanding.

Geology is the largest of the departments scheduled for closure at Queen's. It is the only university geology department in Northern Ireland and, though small by UK standards, the largest of five in Ireland, graduating 27 students in 1998, six of them with first class honours. It will soon exist only as a case history of the madness of management driven only by consideration of the next research assessment exercise, playing fantasy football with real careers.

The staff of the department have been told by the Vice-chancellor that closure has nothing to do with financial viability. Nor has viability anything to do with teaching. Geology is the only science faculty department at Queen's to be graded "excellent" for its teaching provision (Higher Education Funding Council Teaching Quality Assessment, 1995), but that is apparently quite irrelevant.

Geology is being "discontinued", with all the distress and misery this word embodies for staff, students and graduates, simply because the university management believes it is unlikely to obtain Grade 4 in the Research Assessment Exercise of 2001. Geology at Queen's was the smallest, or equal smallest, Earth Science Department to obtain Grade 3 in each of the last two UK assessment exercises (1992 and 1996), and in 1992 the only one to seek and gain that grade in recognition of the applied nature of its research. In the context of size this is a creditable performance. Grade 3 is the average national grade in the Earth Sciences: only Geology teaching departments twice the size of that at Queen's, and the research establishments at Reading and at Newcastle, were awarded research Grades 4 and 5.

Dr Bernard Anderson

Head of Geology Department at Queen's University 1990-96,

School of Geosciences,

The Queen's University of Belfast

As a member of academic staff at Queen's University targeted for early retirement, I wish to make something quite clear to those who have now read Prof Malcolm Andrew's letter.

I do not have a weak research record. I have produced in my 24 years at Queen's 52 publications. This is a meritable output and my research receives international respect. I am only judged as a weak researcher by the incredible standards now required by Queen's in order to justify retention. My acknowledged contribution to the teaching of plant science at Queen's is seemingly not valued.

I am on the Editorial Advisory Boards for the Journal of Biological Education and Biologist - both journals of the Institute of Biology. My appointment as a Teaching Quality Assessment specialist reviewer for UK universities over the next two years will best be fulfiled if I remain involved with teaching in my present post.

What is at stake here is our answer to the fundamental question "What is a university?" Universities should be places where there is a symbiosis between teaching and research. Students should always be put first. The worth of an academic should not be judged solely on whether their research reaches a level 4 or above in the research assessment exercise.

Dr Paul Clifford CBiol MIBiol

Lecturer, School of Biology and Biochemistry

The Queen's University of Belfast

Queen's is not in an analogous situation to the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester to which Prof Andrew compares it. Because of the proliferation of academic institutions in the English regions, it is likely that the needs of the region in teaching, research and development will be met by diverse providers.

The University of Manchester may well compete with its regional counterparts to achieve a high RAE ranking, without fear of leaving vital functions unprovided for. Northern Ireland, with only two degree and post-degree institutions, suffers from a deficit of university provision: the crisis in student places which would normally result is only averted by the fact that we export 40 per cent of our school-leaving undergraduates.

The criteria invoked to abandon subjects in Queen's include the necessity for a department to achieve a critical staff mass before it can rate highly in the RAE. It is not, and will never be, possible for some departments in Queen's to achieve this, but that does not mean that Northern Ireland does not need Geology, Italian and Semitic Studies.

Similarly, research in Queen's should not be exclusively concentrated on areas that are going to achieve the highest RAE rating ("international").

Northern Ireland needs the informed skills of locally-based academics for research into our complex problems, which will not always be rated of international standing but the value of which to our communal future can hardly be measured.

Dr Jennifer FitzGerald

Senior Lecturer,

The Queen's University of Belfast

"There is no evidence to support the commonly held prejudice that staff who make a substantial contribution to research do so by neglecting their teaching." In saying this, Prof Andrew is clearly unaware of the substantial body of research evidence - admittedly mostly American and Australian - which supports that view.

However, the risk that research-active staff will neglect their students has recently been confirmed by work at Oxford Brookes University. My question for Professor Andrew is whether the students at Queen's University have been consulted on this issue, and whether they are happy to have an increasing amount of teaching carried out by people whose top-most priority is research?

Dr Roger Brown

Principal,

Southampton Institute

Downside of research

My daughter has had first hand experience of the importance placed on research as opposed to students and teaching, while undertaking MA studies in Renaissance Literature at a prestigious London University college.

Throughout this year she has had only one essay marked and both she and her student colleagues have seen their assignments consigned to a box in the faculty office for a semester.

As an enthusiastic and committed student of English Literature who has a deep knowledge and love of her subject, she had hoped to continue on through the academic system and teach. Her experiences of the lack of student support and the emphasis placed upon research has left her disillusioned, to say the least.

If universities are to have any hope of recruiting committed and caring teaching staff then there have to be other methods of assessment.

Suzanne Ward

Brighton

Internal affairs

Although we should sympathise with Joanna Norris (Your Views, Education, 10 September), whose lecturer husband had an affair with a student, it is irrational to conclude that draconian measures are needed to prevent lecturers from having affairs with their students.

The present Association of University Teachers advice seems sound enough: such relationships should be avoided, but if they happen then steps should be taken to ensure that the student's work is examined by other staff members, and so on.

To call for more American-style policing shows ignorance of the range of motives, circumstances and consequences of such affairs. Of course, there are a few lecherous egomaniacs who serially seduce students, but there can also be sincere romantic attachments. Lecturers may abuse power, but so may students. Yes, marriages can be damaged by such affairs, but then again, they can occasionally be made by them.

I don't deny that, generally, it is immature and unprofessional for academics to behave in this way. But we should not let the reality of exploitation lead to crude caricatures of these situations, or to over- zealous disciplinary procedures.

Piers Benn

Lecturer, School of Philosophy

University of Leeds

Stricter marking?

Tony Mooney's problem (Education, 3 September) has nothing to do with the introduction of the modular system but is instead caused by the fact that teachers assess the laboratory work in some A-level science courses and this assessed mark contributes 20 per cent to the final A-level grade. But at the same time league tables of school results are published so that there is immense pressure on the science teachers to get the best results.

I am not suggesting that science teachers would do anything as crude as marking something right that is wrong; but there are many subtle ways of indicating what is coming up for assessment, eg by doing something very similar the previous week.

Nationwide, students do brilliantly on assessed coursework, far better than on the corresponding theory papers or practical exam; so perhaps the exam boards are just trying to correct for this inflation. After all they have been criticised for letting standards slip.

John Baker

Hove,

East Sussex

No war zone

The title of Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer's article, "How parents can learn to talk to the enemy" (Education, 3 September) gives the impression of a state of war in the schools between teachers and parents. The article depicts teachers as not only unhelpful, but also aggressive and negative towards parents.

Of course, it is true that a small minority of teachers will exhibit these characteristics, as one would expect in any large employment group. However, the majority of teachers, in my experience, are genuinely interested in their pupils and give considerable time to liaising with parents in a positive and caring way.

Ms Hartley-Brewer's somewhat patronising suggestions about how to improve relationships between teachers and parents are likely to be applicable to only a small number of teachers. To tar all teachers with the same brush will have thoroughly depressed them, particularly as many of them will have been returning to their first days teaching in a new academic year.

The article is offensive and divisive and will serve only to make an already extremely difficult job even more so.

John Sherrington

Truro,

Cornwall

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