Friday, 16 March 2012

Re-creating the binary divide in English Higher Education


Take a look at the graph above. Yes, yawn, I know. But look closer. What it actually shows - courtesy of David Kernohan's excellent 'Followers of the Apocalypse' blog - is the re-creation of the split between teaching and research in English Higher Education.

Ever since polytechnics mostly became universities back in the early 1990s, their staff have been encouraged to become ever more 'research active', and to bring in funding via research grants, via the vexed and complicated Research Assessment Exercise, and via their own entrepreneurship. So the gap between the two sectors closed, little by little, especially given the development of 'islands of quality' in that part of the sector - very, very good departments in what had been thought of as non-research institutions. Think Computer Sciences at Bournemouth or History at Hertfordshire. That sort of thing.

But if you look above, you can see the effect of the Government's 'core and margin' reforms. If they're worthy of the name 'reform', which they're. Put to one side all the sound and fury about tuition fees - most of which will never be collected, even if the system survives. Which it won't. But I digress. Just as important is the way in which the Coalition now proposes to detach more and more places from the mainstream HE budget and give them to institutions charging less than £7,500. It's a plan which, pushed to its logical limits, will eventually force every university to jump one way or the other, and to choose teaching or research as their major revenue stream and activity.

That's what the graph above shows. Look at the blue line. It's 'margin' places allocated to cheaper universities. It pretty much ends exactly where QR money - the money that universities set from their Research Assessment Exercise (now the Research Excellence Framework) - begins.

And that's the future if policy continues to move in this direction - a future prefigured this week when the Russell Group of research-intensive universities grew and began the task of taking in the whole of the 'elite'. Ministers speak publicly about a vibrant, varied, multi-faceted sector, full of choice. What they really mean is: 'recreate the divide between teaching and research institutions, but don't tell anyone you're doing that, and hide that fact until the division is entrenched'. Thus wiping out many of the islands of quality Westminster and Whitehall have been trying desperately trying to shift money to for a couple of decades.

Public policy, eh? It's nice to see it done so well.

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