What exactly is a university?

Are teaching and research inextricably linked, as many academics argue? Jim Kelly examines a debate that has been given new life by the Government's decision to create universities specialising in teaching
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Vice-chancellors are embroiled in what looks like an arcane tussle with the Government over the issue of who gets to claim the title of "university". The new higher education minister, Alan Johnson, wants to extend the brand, for example to embrace colleges which can't award research degrees. But what looks like an academic squabble obscures a deep-rooted, and sometimes bitter, debate.

Johnson used his first set-piece speech on higher education - addressing the annual conference of Universities UK at Warwick - to sound an emollient note on the proposals. But there is no doubt he intends to go ahead with the idea that was set out in the recent higher education White Paper. "There are many excellent higher education colleges focusing on providing high quality teaching. Their role should be recognised just as much as those institutions that focus on research," he told The Independent in an interview.

Vice-chancellors support some of the proposals to extend the university title - for example to institutions with a narrower subject range than is at present demanded - but are deeply concerned about others, and about the long-term consequences of diluting the link between research and teaching. "I think what is at stake is our conception of what a university is," says Ivor Crewe, president of UUK and vice-chancellor at Essex. "What is distinctive about it compared to further education or training? It should not only teach a body of knowledge but how to think critically about it."

It is a question which has haunted the sector for decades: what is the link - if any - between good teaching and research? Johnson, in response to a spirited question at the Universities UK conference on the point, from Professor Arthur Lucas of King's College, London, said he was confident a consensus could be found. Consultation began a week later.

Professor Ronald Barnett, of London University's Institute of Education, offers some hope of an answer. "There is now research on the matter so we can go beyond the rhetoric of the different camps," he says. The White Paper quotes research that shows no links, but Barnett disagrees. "There is evidence to show that there are relationships. Those relationships are often positive - but they may even be negative." For example, an extremely strong research culture might skew teaching and diminish the student's experience, he says.

But the picture is complex and shifts across subjects, as students progress from undergraduate to postgraduate study, and between pre-, and post-1992 universities. Barnett believes, for example, that the link is weak in the first and second years of science degrees. "Research comes into play significantly in the final year - and obviously in postgraduate work," he says. "Here, the student is a kind of apprentice to a master." In the humanities, the pattern is reversed. Students are exposed to research almost immediately and then progress quickly to become experts: "The picture is of the lone scholar doing their own thing."

The institutional differences between pre-, and post-1992 institutions are large, says Barnett. For example, student-staff ratios in the modern universities can be 40 or 50 to one, making a large research workload impossible. "Research and teaching are crucial to how we understand universities," he says. "But they are both complex activities in their own right."

Professor Crewe, and the majority of vice-chancellors, believe that active research is a necessary component of a true university, while recognising the importance of scholarship - that is, reading around the subject, attending conferences and producing some publications. They want to see this properly funded, but not as a replacement for research.

Many others - mostly in private - can be rude about the stance taken by higher education experts. Critics believe opposition to the extension of the title is riddled with cynicism. Many think that cross-subsidies from teaching to research help pay many academics to do what they love - research. "Some academics should never be let near a student - and some of those who teach have not looked inside a fume cupboard for a decade," says one former university administrator. "The new universities are against the idea of extending university title as well because they don't want to face any awkward questions about their research capacity - or face new competition."

Professor David Green, principal of University College Worcester, believes that the true mission of universities is to teach, "The main source of income for the vast majority of British universities comes from teaching," he says. "Providing excellent higher education to students should be our first priority. It is very sad that opposition to the proposed reform stems largely from a desire to keep the number of universities down."

Like Green, Professor Paul Luther, Pro-Vice Chancellor at Bournemouth, would like to see university title extended. "I think it is possible to have good teaching without research - but I think the notion of scholarship is very important," he says. "I am all in favour of opening the doors to new institutions. But I think the university title must involve some notion of research - if not necessarily that rewarded by the research assessment exercise or the ability to award PhDs. The term 'teaching-only' is derogatory - it implies bums on seats, and a cram them in, stack them high policy."

Not everyone in the post-92 universities is sympathetic to the notion of extending the university title. Professor Patrick McGhee, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire says that the proposals are misguided. "Overseas students could well be confused about the kind of education they are going to receive," he says. The university - praised by ministers in the White Paper for its teaching focus - believes its research capacity is vital to maintain teaching quality.

But in the main academics are passionate about the link between teaching and research. Lucas, now retired as principal at King's, thinks the link is both fundamental and two-way. "It inculcates a state of mind - you are putting forward a model to students which encourages a questioning approach," he says. "But it flows the other way - and that has happened to me. I was asked a very simple question in the 1970s by a student and I didn't have the faintest idea what the answer was. The result was work (on genetic diversity) which is still cited today."

Although Professor Lucas concedes that teaching subsidises research he argues that this benefits students who are better taught as a result. In the long-term, the trend for funding to become increasingly hypothecated could accelerate if the link is weakened, he says. And it could lead to research being moved out of universities into wholly-owned subsidiaries. In addition, universities could have a branding problem if the university title is extended too widely. "Ministers need to think through the consequences in the overseas market," he says. "In the US, different tiers of the system have different names. It is going to happen here, and you can see it beginning to happen through the operation of market forces."