Over 30 years ago, I turned down a job at IBM to pursue a career within the university system. I was well aware that I would earn less, but I felt the salary would be reasonable and the work not pressurised. Above all, I wanted to do research. This didn't involve conflict with teaching, since one had time to do both well.
Things look very different now. University salaries have declined atrociously, and staff are rushed off their feet trying to cope with ever-increasing pressures to perform in both teaching and research, and handle exponential growth in administration. Inevitably, students don't always get all the attention they should, but in many departments the number of students has doubled and the number of staff halved.
There is no doubt that the students could be given more attention if the staff did no research, but many of us see the chance to do one's own research as the last remaining benefit of working in universities; those who are strongly attracted by the teaching would do better in the school system.
THE INCREASED focus of research over teaching in universities should not come as a surprise. With caps on student numbers, and guaranteed decline in real income via "efficiency gains", universities know that each year the value of the income generated from teaching will decline. Conversely, research offers the best opportunity currently available to increase income.
No private sector organisation would focus its energy on an activity which it knows will generate a year-on-year reduction in income over one which offered to increase income.
University of Reading
THERE IS no coherent argument to support the assertion that university teaching is improved by being delivered by academic researchers.
In no other part of the education system is it regarded as acceptable that untrained amateurs perform teaching. A teaching qualification is mandatory to teach infants, there is no qualification at university level.
The concept of self-regulation has been seen not to work in other areas. The idea of independent standards and curricula cannot be sustained in over 100 degree-giving institutions. The external examiner system is no safeguard. If it is appropriate to monitor A-level standards, surely it is essential with degree assessments.
The pressure to produce "research" has not led to useful outcomes. Certainly a society should support a level of "blue sky" research. To pretend that there is no limit to what can be afforded and that the amount produced is magically related to the number of higher education students is obviously foolish and self-serving.
Weird way to support science
IT IS claimed that science is an important feature of the UK economy and supporting it is necessary. For this reason, additional funds are being put into "the support of science".
This money is put into funds of research councils, which support only a small proportion of UK scientists. Funds are sometimes not available for proposals which referees report will give the UK a lead in an important area. It seems that this situation will improve.
By contrast, the planned support for the universities in which these scientists work is estimated to go down by about 1 per cent per annum per student, presumably for the indefinite future. The research funding which was given to a grade 3 department a few years ago is now given to a grade 5 department. Universities accommodate these cuts by losing academic staff, or support staff, or equipment, or library, or maintenance. One result is that academic staff do increasingly more clerical or administrative work. This, the Government calls an "efficiency gain".
Also, although science may, as a whole, encourage increased economic wealth for the country, there is no intention that the salaries of scientists should ever reflect any such gains. They have more work, more norms, less pay in relation to comparative groups (between 57 per cent and 70 per cent according to recent figures). A decline in comparative salaries is a key reason why the results of UK science are, for the present, better per pound than other countries, an effect regarded by government as one of its achievements.
The policies of the Government with regard to universities are designed so that they have the effect of (a) increasing the difficulties for UK scientists to continue an atmosphere of originality, diversity, and vitality; and (b) of continuously decreasing scientists' comparative financial rewards. As a policy of supporting science, it could be described as, say, different.
PROFESSOR R BROWN,
School of Mathematics,
University of Wales, Bangor
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