Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Can decent Higher Education really be built on competition?

The Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts (above) recently wrote an extremely revealing letter to the London Review of Books.

In it, he revealed some of the central tenets of his thinking - elements that have, perhaps deliberately, been left dormant up until now.

The Minister's argument goes like this. The Research Assessment Exercise, in which British universities are graded (and funded) every few years on the basis of their research, has caused a really vibrant research culture - competitive, adversarial, lean and hungry. We must now do the same for teaching so that the 'market' incentives in teaching match those for research. So academic departments talk all the time about boosting teaching quality, as they bid for places, just as research managers come round the corridors asking how many publications and funding bids you've fired off that week.

This is so far off the mark that one doesn't even know where to begin. For one thing, Britain has always been at the forefront of world research. This has deep historical roots. Britain is free, liberal, English-speaking and rich - all facts that attracted the best and the brightest to the country to conduct research, and still does. She has universities of great repute and reknown, and always has. The country has a strong science base - one enormously boosted since the 1990s by a great deal of sustained central government spending (and which Willetts himself has tried to protect). The country is small, dense and 'clustered'. It sits at the heart of the sea and the air lanes.

Is any element of this to do with the game-playing, largely-discredited, crude, out-of-date and bureaucratic RAE? I think not.

In fact, the RAE and its successor, REF 2014, have come increasingly under fire in recent years. They have very little intellectual credibility left - at least as an 'objective' test of 'quality'. They may well be useful in directing a second stream of cash to universities above and beyond the monies esearchers have to bid for case-by-case. It might be that this allows 'pockets of excellence' to be recognised, leaving aside the process of peer review of individual bids that can often advantage the big, the brash and the famous. Someone has to audit the money.

But the cause of Britain's research dynamism? Please. Give me a break. There are historical reasons for this, and historians are good people to ask about them. Not Ministers.

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