Superior knowledge comes with age

Long-established institutions that rank high on research also offer the best teaching, says Geoffrey Alderman
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The Independent Online
Is the presence of research in a university necessary to ensure the highest quality of teaching? A post-mortem report being prepared by the quality assessment division (QAD) of the Higher Education Funding Council for England seems to suggest it is.

Between spring 1993 and summer 1995, the QAD assessed 15 subjects taught in institutions in England and Northern Ireland. More than 75 per cent of the judgements of "excellence" for a university subject were awarded to "old" universities, 22 per cent to former polytechnics and colleges, and one to a further education college.

At the other end of the scale, 12 visits resulted in judgements of "unsatisfactory" teaching quality. Of these, only one (postgraduate provision in English at Exeter University) went to an old university, nine went to former polytechnics and colleges, and two to further education colleges.

As it became clear that new universities were doing badly out of the exercise, several theories were put forward to explain the results. In some subjects there appeared to be a clear relationship between the quality of education provided and the calibre of the research that the teaching staff undertook.

For example, 15 of the "excellents" given in history went to departments that had been rated highly in the 1992 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Overall, 85 per cent of the verdicts of "excellent" in the first eight subjects assessed were given in respect of provision that had high ratings for research. More than 70 per cent of provision that had the highest research rating achieved an "excellent" assessment. Could it be that teaching and research really did go hand-in-hand, as the old universities had been arguing all along?

On this matter the QAD draft report is unequivocal: "There appears to be evidence of association between high achievement in research and excellence in teaching." Of course, a first-rate researcher need not be an excellent teacher, and a teacher of the highest calibre need not be at the cutting edge of research. But it must be remembered that the HEFCE was trying to measure quality of education, not simply quality of teaching.

What impressed assessors, as the QAD admits, was the impact that research activity had on the quality of the student learning experience: the impact of research on the curriculum; the fact that high research-rated departments tend to have more staff (thus permitting more individual and small group teaching); the impact of research funds on the quality of the library and information technology provision.

There was clearly, too, a functional relationship between size and excellence. "Small providers had relatively little success in achieving excellence," the QAD says, adding that more than 60 per cent of "excellents" were given to the largest 40 per cent of providers, measured by student numbers. Small departments may give individual tuition, but are less likely to provide students with the depth and breadth of educational experience on offer in large departments.

These considerations led to a discussion of the relationship between resource and assessment. At first, the HEFCE seemed reluctant to acknowledge the link between excellence and RAE rating. But in its evidence to the Government's review of higher education in February, the HEFCE agreed there was some evidence deriving from quality assessments that departments most successful in research, and therefore in attracting research funding, were among the most successful at teaching.

The QAD takes the argument further, by revealing that in terms of total HEFCE funding of institutions, and institutional income, more than three-quarters of the "excellents" are found in the largest 40 per cent of institutions. Excellence in the scientific and technological disciplines "is unlikely to be associated" with a low average unit of council funding (AUCF), while the small amount of provision found by QAD assessment teams to be unsatisfactory "lies in the lower ranges of AUCF and institutional income".

A fund for the development of teaching and learning has been established, and the HEFCE is expected shortly to issue an invitation to bid for project funding. This initiative is welcome, but it will not do much by itself to address the underlying question of resource, which the QAD says affects the quality of education in government-funded higher education institutions.

It will be up to Mrs Shephard and Mr Major, not the teachers and vice- chancellors, to propose how they respond to the QAD report.

The writer is head of the academic and quality assurance unit at Middlesex University.