Roger Brown: Chancellor must stop playing with higher education

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The Independent Online

The announcement in the Chancellor's budget statement that the Research Assessment Exercise will be replaced, possibly as soon as 2008, by another means of assessing research typifies British higher education policy-making at its worst.

The move seems to have taken everyone, including the Higher Education Funding Council for England (and the Department for Education and Skills?) by surprise. This was also the case with the Chancellor's two previous major interventions in this field - the Laura Spence affair, and the decision to give the University of Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology £62m to promote business links. Neither is an especially encouraging precedent.

Laura Spence kicked off a largely meaningless debate about widening participation. The problem is not a few very bright working-class youngsters failing to get into an elite institution, but large numbers of bright working-class youngsters failing to get into university or college at all. The Government's latest wheeze of identifying the brightest 5 per cent at 11 and grooming them for "top" universities is just the latest echo of this. The Cambridge/MIT venture was subject to severe criticism by the National Audit Office.

The reaction to the budget statement by Universities UK - in effect, that universities would rather hang on to the RAE in its present form until something better was available - was also predictable. When will the sector get up off its knees?

Next, there is the Chancellor's conclusion that the present system of peer review should be replaced by a metrics-based system. While such an approach has its merits, it also has its defects. Recently published analysis by the respected Higher Education Policy Institute shows quite clearly that, while a metrics-based approach could lead to higher-quality research being produced, it also increases the costs of research funding and leads to far greater instability.

In any case, shouldn't a range of options be considered, with pros and cons carefully weighed? Where is the Government's espousal of evidence-based policy-making? Or is this yet another example of "policy-based evidence", to use Sir Howard Newby's phrase?

In exploring options, one of the "requirements" of an evidence-based approach is the need to take account of unanticipated consequences. Even across the policy literature, the RAE is a locus classicus. While it has almost certainly increased the quality of certain kinds of research, it has also played to the obsession with research that is the biggest single weakness of our system. It has damaged other forms of scholarship, such as production of textbooks; held back reach-out activities such as knowledge transfer; and contributed to the devaluing of teaching as an academic activity.

This last point is of particular importance. While there is plenty of evidence that students can learn more effectively when taught by lecturer-scholars, there are studies showing that a preoccupation with research can actually harm student learning. With variable fees just around the corner, students will be even less forgiving of lecturers whose attention to their RAE rating makes them actually or virtually absent from the seminar room.

It is also a great irony. One of the Chancellor's aims for Britain is the creation of a highly skilled workforce. A focus on high-quality university teaching is cardinal to that. So, even in terms of the Government's own priorities, there is a strong case for taking the widest possible view of how the quality of university research and scholarship should be assessed, even to the point of considering whether such research should be separately assessed (and funded) at all. What are the chances of such a review?

We come here to the final difficulty. All discussion of this issue has historically been dominated by the leading research universities and the companies and interests, and indeed the Government departments, associated with the kinds of research these institutions carry out. Not only money but, far worse, personal, institutional and academic subject prestige are at stake.

We can anticipate that these same interests will be well represented in the discussions that will follow the Chancellor's announcement as each interest lobbies for the best financial outcome for itself. Is everything to be determined by such self-interest? Where is the public interest in having an effective and well-balanced higher education system, where research and teaching are properly integrated and mutually supportive? Where are student interests in all this? One despairs.

The writer is vice-chancellor and Professor of Higher Education Policy at Southampton Solent University