Willetts Revisited

I rarely agree with David Willetts. Reading his new pamphlet on universities, Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education (a comparison between the 1963 Robbins report and current policy), I found that I agree on one principle, mostly discussed in chapter 3, that universities should be focusing as much energy on teaching as they do on research. That’s as far as I can go, though. His statement ‘Looking back we will wonder how the higher education system was  ever  allowed  to  become  so  lopsided  away  from  teaching [towards research]’ (p. 47) has been leapt upon on social media, perhaps unfairly, as a sign that he does not know why it has. In fact, he provides the answer himself: ‘Universities have focused primarily on research because that is where the funding and prestige came from’ (p. 36). He is just not doing enough to change this.

The academics I know are all passionate about teaching. Research is vitally important, but it is the chance to share this research, and other learning, with students that is truly motivating. This is why academics work so hard to pursue a university career – and despite common stereotypes, it is very hard work. In a sector where there are regularly hundreds of applicants for any one position (much on my mind because we are now in the Season of Job Applications), it is not easy to get on the career ladder, and it does not get easier if you are lucky enough to get one of these coveted posts. A survey of around 7,000 academics published this month by the University and College Union, and discussed here by Gaby Mahlberg, highlights the stress and out-of-hours workload imposed on academics (and disproportionately female academics) by the requirements of the Research Excellence Framework happening this year. UCU have also responded to Willetts’ pamphlet.

Most students, and most people outside of universities, have probably never heard of the REF; I didn’t until I was a doctoral student. It is, in short, the latest system used by government funding bodies to measure the quality of research. Universities submit their academics’ publications; these are ranked; and funding is apportioned accordingly, for the next cycle (the previous review was in 2008). Although, as I finished my Ph.D. this year, I have not had to meet REF deadlines, it nevertheless impacts on my work just as it does on all of British academia. It is because of this that universities – or at least research-intensive universities – expect their academics to publish, as much as to teach; it is because of this that early career academics are advised, as I have been on many occasions, that publications are worth more to selection committees than training or experience in teaching. Students are right to complain when their lecturers are more interested in research than in teaching, but they should also recognise that academics do not always have the liberty to follow their own priorities. Willetts’ pamphlet has prompted a clash in the Guardian about academics’ teaching and research roles (1, 2).

Willetts is reasonably optimistic about forthcoming improvements to teaching. He claims that ‘The paradox is that unleashing the forces of consumerism with more information for prospective students and funding following their choices is the best way of bringing back traditional academic focus on high-quality teaching’ (p. 37). He cites examples of universities improving student experience or resources (pp. 46-7). I remain unconvinced that these two are related in quite so straightforward a fashion, and I think he seriously underestimates just how discouraging the £9,000-per-year price tag is to some students (see p. 60): to some, regardless of whether repayment is linked to earnings, a five-figure debt is simply something to avoid (and how much did you pay for your degree, Mr Willetts?). In the context of research and teaching, I have much less faith than Willetts – to put it mildly – that ‘forces of consumerism’ will ‘push a real cultural change back towards teaching’ (p.47). There is a danger, with teaching funding gone, that universities will pursue research funding more, not less, aggressively. The pressure to publish at the expense of teaching could become more, not less, embedded, perhaps increasing the split between research and teaching emerging in some institutions, or the separation between research and non-research universities that Willetts himself notes is already well established (pp. 38-9).

In the UCU survey, 62% of respondents thought the REF creates unreasonable expectations for research publication; 60% felt that the REF is detrimental to Higher Education; over half said that it has not improved the quality of research; over half thought that it should be replaced by some alternative. In light of this dissatisfaction with the system, Willetts’ trust in the ‘forces of consumerism’ as a way of ‘strengthening the incentives to focus on teaching’ (p. 35) appears complacent. The government’s education leaders have shown, with Michael Gove’s ‘bad academia’ debacle earlier this year (there’s a summary here by Pat Thomson), that they can be breathtakingly dismissive of the experience and opinions of the academic community. If they care as much about university teaching as Willetts claims they do, they should start listening instead.

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One thought on “Willetts Revisited

  1. Pingback: EdmondJSmith | Teaching v Research: the battle for the soul of the humanities

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