The Wrong Idea of a University

Higher education has been hijacked by the quangocracy: teaching is neglected, research is distorted by bogus assessment methods, and trust in professional judgement is gone

It was the great paradox of Thatcherism. Economic policy was driven by privatis­ation, deregulation and market forces. But educational policy was driven by nationalisation (of the school curriculum), regul­ation (of university statutes, teachers’ performance and much more) and government control (the establishment of direct budgetary lines between Whitehall and individual schools, at the expense of local education authorities). The aim was to bring efficiency to the bloated public sector. The quango­cracy that is New Labour has taken up the cause with a vengeance. From pre-school to PhD, we have not only the most tested pupils but also the most bureaucratically burdened teachers in the world. The result has been to bury educational initiative and innovation beneath a sea of paperwork.

The old trust in professional judgement has gone. I have been a professor for nearly 20 years, but I am no longer allowed to use my experience and instincts to mark one undergraduate essay at 58 and another at 62. Instead, I have to judge them both according to a prescribed set of degree classification crit­eria, linked to the aims and objectives in the approved course module descriptor, and calibrated against the national benchmarking exercise carried out by the QAA (Quality Ass­urance Agency for Higher Education). Mind you, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to give a 58 these days, since that equates to a 2:2. In my student days, the old Desmond (Tutu) was a respectable degree, but it’s becoming an endangered species, no doubt soon to go the way of that exotic gentlemanly beast, the Third. Now that students are paying for their degrees themselves, they expect the kind of customer service offered by the private sector: if we do not “deliver” them a 2:1, that’s our fault and they can take a complaint to the OIA (Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education).

What, then, of the other part of the academic life: research? Surely the laboratory, the rare books room and the learned journal remain free from the clutches of the quango­cracy? No, dear reader, there is no escape: let me introduce you to the weird and wonderful world of the QR funding stream, the RAE and the RCUK knowledge transfer initiative.

Again, the origins lie in the Thatcher era. Government has to to fund universities for basic research — and in the hard sciences that means doling out large sums of public money. In the early 1980s, swingeing cuts were made to the funding of higher education. A new — as would now be said “more robust” — rationale was needed for the distribution of the research budget. For decades, it had been handed out according to a formula so arcane that no one could explain it to the incoming head of the University Grants Committee, Sir ­Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of his generation. What the system really boiled down to was “historical principles” — in other words, loadsamoney for Oxford, Cambridge and London, peanuts for the 40 or so other universities.

Swinnerton-Dyer realised that some form of quality control was needed. He focused on the medical and laboratory-based subjects: they were where the serious money was spent and where the opportunity for payback in the national economy was greatest. These were also disciplines in which it was relatively easy to devise an assessment mechanism. Scientific research advances through the publication of new findings in peer-reviewed specialist journals, some of which are more prestigious than others. Research papers are usually relatively short. It would not be too arduous an exercise for universities to ask their scientific researchers to submit their best papers to panels of experts in each discipline, who could come up with a ranking on the basis of which funding could be redistributed. A further ambition was to reward links with industry, in order to stimulate applied research, but this was abandoned in the face of the ivory tower mentality of the older universities. It smacked too much of the sort of thing that went on in polytechnics.

Fatally, though, the civil servants in the Department of Education could not resist the temptation to apply Sir Peter’s proposal across the board. Thus the Research Assessment Exercise (“RAE”) was born. It has dominated academic life ever since, shaping not only publication patterns but also promotions, football-style poaching of superstars, changed teaching patterns and the rooting out of supposed dead wood. Every few years, there is a new RAE in which panels of professors sit in judgement on a set number of publications by every “research-active” university employee in the land. Each department gets a grade and a commensurate amount of funding until the next exercise comes around.

Devise a set of rules and academics will quickly find ways to play the system. It quickly became apparent that some disciplines were cannier than others at promoting their own self-interest. In 1996, for example, the Modern Languages panels were much more generous in judging their peers than were their colleagues on the English panel. The result was that Britain was deemed to boast world-leading research in French Literature but to be distinctly mediocre at English Literature, which seems a little counter-intuitive. What the result really meant was that the modern linguists were intent on protecting their little pot of gold whereas the EngLit lot couldn’t resist biting each others’ backs. Each round of the RAE has accordingly become more complicated than the last in the attempt to outwit the “game-players”.

As I write, the 2008 competition is in full swing. Getting on for 200,000 academic books and articles are being mailed out from a repository near Bristol to the thousand or more professors who form the 70 panels that are assessing the “quality profile” of every academic department in the country. Thanks to the conversion of polytechnics and higher-education colleges into universities, nearly 200 institutions are participating. The direct cost of the previous exercise, in 2001, was £5.2 million (against an initial budget of £3.6 million): a substantial sum, though only one per cent of the amount of money (£5 billion) distributed on the basis of the results. The indirect cost of the whole process — in the time spent on the exercise by the departments making submissions and the panellists reading all the work — is beyond calculation.

The current exercise will be the last in the present form. In a classic Gordon Brown move, the death-sentence of the RAE was pronounced in a half-sentence gabbled out in the middle of the 2006 budget, with no prior consultation of the profession or even, it seems, the quangocracy. Having been made progressively more complicated, the RAE will be replaced by a radically simplified funding distribution system based on “a basket of metrics”. The idea is to do away with the peer-review process and instead crunch some citation indexes through the ministerial computer.

Citation indexes, you ask? The theory is that the best research gets referred to most frequently in subsequent research. By totting up the number of references to Professor Fixit’s seminal paper on cold nuclear fusion, you can rank the significance of his work. There are indeed online league tables that will tell you the names of the world’s most cited scientists in each discipline. These are no doubt very useful to superprofs in their salary negotiations, but even among hard scientists there are considerable reservations about the value of such indexes. For one thing, Professor Fixit’s paper might have a thousand citations as an example of failed research. And for another, if you give more significance to citation, then everybody will start mentioning their mates’ work in their footnotes so as to bump up the count. You cite my paper and I’ll cite yours. One imagines the establishment of clandestine internet “citation rings”.

According to the “ISI Web of Knowledge” the database that will be used for the new Research Excellence Framework (“REF”), my top citation hit is a little book that I dashed off in a few weeks as a polemical squib — it far outscores the considered monographs over which I laboured for years in the great research lib­raries of the world. In the humanities, there are few established hierarchies of journals, and much of the most significant work is done in books, scholarly editions and other forms that elude the citation databases. Gordon Brown has not backed down on his metric basket case, but he has conceded that it will not work for the humanities — not because of reservations about the principle, but because the metrics aren’t sophisticated enough. The new mechanism will go ahead, but there will be some kind of fudge for the arts and humanities disciplines, a yet-to-be-determined “light touch peer review process informed by quantitative indicators”.

What the reform of the RAE conspicuously fails to address is the way that the whole research assessment process has deformed the delicate ecology of higher education in the humanities. There certainly was deadwood that needed pruning in the 1980s. But in the humanities, productivity is not synonymous with publication of one article a year in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. There is an elephant in the room of the debate about how to fund university research, namely the separation of research from teaching.

This division is a function of the quango­cracy. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) distributes money to universities for teaching (“T” income, determined by student numbers) and, in a separate budget line, for research (“QR” income, determined by the RAE scores). Mat­erials such as textbooks and teaching packs are specifically excluded from the RAE; they are deemed not to be proper research. In order to maximise research income, universities want all their academic staff to be “returned” to the RAE. So all must publish research. Poor old Ludwig Wittgenstein: he was only the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, but because of his unfortunate tendency to think and to teach rather than to turn out a stream of papers in the Journal of Analytic Philo­sophy, he would in today’s climate have been invited by his Vice-Chancellor to consider the early retirement package.

It used to work like this. Dr Bloggs, the brilliant scholar who had solved the problem of the variant quartos of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, was one of the most boring teachers on God’s Earth. Mr Nobbs, who never got around to finishing his PhD on the image of the sea in English Literature, let alone publishing any academic articles, was an awe-inspiring teacher — he had read everything and could instil in his students a passion for the subject that would stay with them all their lives. All the Head of the English Department had to do was give Nobbs a heavy teaching load, which delighted both him and the students, and Bloggs a light one, which also delighted the students and gave him more time alone with his textual collations. The department was a happy place.

But then along came the RAE. Bloggs’s work was just the stuff to bring the department the money that came with a five-star rating. Nobbs, to the distress of the students, was pensioned off as “non-returnable”. The next generation of academics learnt the lesson. They finished their PhDs and started up new journals in which to get their work published. They developed more and more specialised areas of expertise. How to do original research? Keep away from the well-trodden pastures such as Milton and Wordsworth, cultivate instead your status as the world expert on the hitherto neglected writings of Henry Glapthorne and Ann Yearsley. They negotiated light teaching loads and generous “research leave” arrangements. Who can blame them? This was the acknowledged road to advancement. A gift for inspirational teaching of everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Samuel Beckett was no longer of any interest to the administration in Senate House.

The inevitable development of the “culture of the RAE” was the proposal that recently came out of the History Department at Bristol University. In order to free up more time for their research, the historians decided that they wouldn’t offer final-year students any regular teaching. Instead, each student would spend the year working on a dissertation, with a little light-touch supervision. This would help them develop “research skills” — and give the faculty the extra time it needed to improve its RAE rating. The proposal was quickly withdrawn when students complained that a fee of £3,000 per year seemed a little steep for access to the university library and a collection of online databases.

The downgrading of university human­ities teaching in the name of research has been exacerbated by another factor. Histor­ically, funding for scientific research has been given to the universities under a “dual support” system. The “QR” stream from the Funding Council supports the basic infrastructure, while the Research Councils (“RCUK” — not to be confused with the clothing brand “FCUK”) run competitive schemes for particular projects. When scientists tell you that they have to spend an inordinate amount of time writing grant applications, they are referring to Research Council grants, as well as comparable competitions run with a great deal less bureaucratic blather by the great educational charities such as the Leverhulme and Wellcome Trusts. After a long campaign, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (“AHRC”) was established in 2005. It has about £100m per year at its disposal, a tiny proportion of the £2.8bn overall funding provided by RCUK, within which the Medical Research Council is, quite properly, by far the most generously served. The opportunity to bring their universities some part of the new AHRC money is another incentive for hum­anities academics to concentrate more on their research than on their teaching.

With Gordon Brown’s restructuring of government departments, higher education is now under the control of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (“DIUS”). We no longer have a Department for Education in this country. The idea of a university as “a place of teaching universal knowledge” — Cardinal Newman’s phrase — has, it seems, no relevance in Brown’s Britain. Higher education must now justify itself in terms of the “innovation and skills agenda”. Crudely put, academic research must pay its way by generating real returns in the wider economy. The Research Councils’ big new idea, driven by DIUS, is “knowledge transfer”. This is defined as “improving exploitation of the research base to meet national economic and public service objectives” to be achieved by means of “people and knowledge flow” together with “commercialisation, including Intellectual Property exploitation and entrepreneurial activities”.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council has accordingly been given a remit to prioritise projects that support these objectives. The idea seems to be that you fund, say, a research project on the Renaissance domestic interior, which then feeds into a public exhibition on that subject at the V & A, and you then commission PriceWaterhouseCoopers to do some sums demonstrating the “economic impact” of said exhibition — this is achieved by totting up the train fares of visitors coming into London to see the show, the profit margin on the merchandise they buy at the gallery shop, the money they spend in local restaurants and so forth. The exercise is entirely artificial: after all, if the exhibition supported by the research funding had not happened, another one would have done. There is no causal relationship between the conduct (let alone the quality) of the research and the punters stoking the economy with their leisure-time expenditure.

Even in the hard sciences, the relationship between original research and commercial exploitation is usually indirect and long-term. More than half a century passed between Arthur C. Clarke’s visionary conception of the communication potential of orbital satellites and the massive economic impact of the manufacture and sale of GPS devices to individual motorists. Medical research, too, has a long history of vast sums of money being spent on journeys up blind alleys, with new breakthroughs often coming by chance in quite unexpected places. Cyclosporin, the immunosuppressive agent that revolutionised organ transplantation, was discovered as part of a general screening programme, not through a research project specifically addressing the problem of graft rejection. Medical history is full of stories of this kind.

DIUS, the new department charged with overseeing the hugely expanded enterprise of higher education in this country, is less than a year old and yet it has already developed a reputation for even greater meddling than its predecessors did. Of course there is a prime duty to account for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but a much more subtle style of accountancy is required. There is something especially inappropriate about the attempt to quantify the “value” and “impact” of work in the humanities in economic terms, since the very nature of the humanities is to address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life — such as history, beauty, imagination, faith, truth, goodness, justice and freedom. The only test of a philosophical argument, an historical hypothesis or an aesthetic judgement is time. A long period of time, not that of a “funding cycle” determined by the quangocracy.

There is a huge opportunity for the Conservative Party to offer some genuine innovation in higher education funding. It could begin from the premise that good research and good teaching go together. It might even call the process “knowledge transfer” — in good universities, research questions emerge through teaching and new hypotheses are tested on students. The original proposal that Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer devised for Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher should be revived. Some form of RAE or REF, or whatever you care to name it, will continue to be necessary in the lab-based sciences. But in the disciplines where you do not need to spend millions and millions of pounds on hi-tech kit — in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, even pure mathematics — you can abolish the designated research funding stream. A proportion of the money released can then be used to increase the payment per student that government gives to the universities for teaching — a sum that has been steadily eroded as the proportion of the population going into higher education has expanded.

But what you have to do at the same time is allow a genuine market to operate in the universities. At present, the supplementary fee paid by students themselves is capped at just over £3,000 per annum, for fear of excluding the socially disadvantaged from higher education. The result is that nearly every university charges the same fee — the maximum rate allowed. By removing the cap, you would allow universities to find their own niche in the market. Some would concentrate primarily on teaching, setting their fees competitively to attract large numbers of students. Others would charge a higher fee in order to raise money to fund research time for their academics, by way of less onerous teaching loads, generous sabbatical provision, and so forth.

The other element of the equation is to ensure equality of access by operating what the Americans call a “needs blind” admission system. That is to say, universities such as Harvard and Stanford choose their students on the basis of ability. Once the selection process is complete, those admitted are means-tested and they pay whatever proportion they can afford of the fee (which at a top university may be more than $40,000 a year). The American system effectively means that the less well-off are subsidised by a combination of the very well-off, who pay the full fee, and the substantial endowments that universities have built up over the years. Oxford and Cambridge have such endowments, but other British universities do not: for the system to work, one would need some version of the old system of means-tested student grants (which could be funded from the remainder of the abolished research income stream). In the long term, the surest way of allowing universities to build up their own endowments — besides offering more generous tax breaks for charitable donors — is to create a system in which students get the best teaching imaginable, with the result that those who do well in the world of work will wish to show their gratitude for the intellectual foundations of their success that were laid by their higher education. The current skewing of funding towards research as opposed to teaching is hardly likely to stimulate a shift towards the American culture of alumni support. The neglected third-year Bristol history undergraduate who goes on to become a media mogul would, one imagines, be unlikely to bestow largesse on his alma mater.

Higher education funding is not the stuff of political headline grabbing, but in the so-called “knowledge economy” of the 21st century, this is an area where, if we give the universities the freedom to pursue excellence beyond the constraints of the quangocracy, we can restore our former pre-eminence.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"