Philip Hensher: Two-year degrees make a mockery of universities

Contrary to popular belief, vacations are not opportunities to disport oneself on an Aegean beach
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The Independent Online

What are universities for? Or, to put it another and more fundamental way, what is a university? For most people who work in one, the answer has always been that they are institutions that balance direct learning and opportunities for original research. As students progress through the system, the direct instruction aspect tends to diminish, the research element increases; and a certain spirit of egalitarianism reflects the fact that the faculty are not just teachers, but engaged in the same search for knowledge as their PhD, MA or even BA students.

Increasingly, however, universities are being asked to regard themselves as primarily teaching institutions, and public reforms now in progress will turn them into mere extensions of secondary schools. University departments are constantly required to demonstrate a high rate of publication and independent research, via the dreaded Research Assessment Exercise, or RAE. Meanwhile, very little is done to protect academics' research time, and obligations to teach are constantly increasing.

I teach creative writing at the University of Exeter, and recently we have been officially instructed that the university's teaching week extends from Monday morning to Friday afternoon, and we should not try to make stipulations about when we will and will not teach. All well and good, but that makes it very difficult to set aside one or two days a week for research, and makes life very hard if, like me, you have a professional existence outside the university as well.

Most academics now rely on university vacations and on periods of sabbatical to carry out serious research, and very useful they are too. I'm thinking of writing a book about an 18th-century Pahari painter, and during the Easter vacation to take day trips to Oxford and Cambridge, as well as longer visits to Zurich and Berlin to look at some of his work. An extended trip to work in India will probably have to wait until it's my turn for a sabbatical - they come round less frequently than the RAE's demand to see a publication from you, but that is just a minor piece of official unreasonable behaviour.

Rather a larger one, however, is on the horizon with what is effectively a restructuring of the university year. The Higher Education minister, Bill Rammell, is rolling out a programme of two-year accelerated degree programmes, initially in a small number of universities on a limited number of programmes. But he expects the two-year degree to become part of mainstream university education by 2010.

The prime objection to such programmes, it appears, is based on the maintenance of standards. Rammell was at pains to emphasise that these degrees would be a challenge, and suited mostly to mature students and those with some experience of learning. Actually, I think he's pushing at an open door here. A degree programme doesn't have an absolutely fixed intellectual value, and there is no doubt that what some students struggle to cover in three years, another could whizz through in two or even one.

It's difficult to see, however, that adequate practise in original research could be developed as swiftly as that. And the proposals will quite efficiently erode the opportunities for research by teaching staff. Teaching, in some areas, goes on through the vacations already. Post-graduate students can start referring in pointed terms to value-for-money, I've discovered, if one goes away for more than a couple of weeks.

A two-year degree programme could only be conscientiously carried out by a university by increasing the teaching load, and in particular by starting to teach formally in what previously had been considered research time. Contrary to popular belief, university vacations are not opportunities to go and disport oneself on an Aegean beach from June to October, but usually a good chance to get on with that book or article. I'm not even talking about the right to a holiday here, and in fact research does start to encroach on anything resembling a holiday; there might not be any other opportunity to set down to it in a concerted way.

If we want universities to be no more than extensions of secondary school, passing on facts to undergraduates, then the Government can perfectly well go on running down faculty opportunities to research and write books. It might be rational to stop evaluating faculties on their published research if it doesn't consider that this is part of their core function, and just to measure how much information they ram into undergraduates. That seems to be the logic of the policy.

Whether any of that would be remotely likely to increase the reputation of British universities internationally is open to question. A university's reputation to the outside world is not really based on the number of students it awards Firsts to. Rather, it is based on the public reputation, in terms of books and research, of its staff. If few people, in future, were tempted to enter a profession where they were actively prevented from pursuing research as well as teaching, not many students would be drawn to a university where people had always been much too busy to make their name in print, however excellent the teaching.

Finally, an apology. Last week, I ascribed to Patricia Hewitt, the Health minister, a statement about the Iran hostages being seen to smoke. My research failed to identify the date on which the statement was supposedly made: 1 April. Both Mrs Hewitt and I were victims of a jape, and I unreservedly apologise to Mrs Hewitt, who of course never said any such thing.