Research money could be better spent on teaching students

Research consumes much time and money that could be better spent on teaching students

Good article in the Scotsman by Professor John Haldane of St Andrews offering a view on the balance of funding between teaching and research. The article is a version of Professor Haldane’s excellent presentation at the Lord Dearing memorial conference held at the University of Nottingham in February 2010:

ONCE again there is talk of a funding crisis facing higher education and some are talking of cuts as swingeing as those enacted during the first Thatcher administration…During the last two decades, university managers, academics and others have become accustomed to increases in the level of income in support of teaching and research, and although the sources of income have been diversified, there remains a great demand upon the public purse to deliver increasing resources to universities. There are questions of justice regarding this – particularly in Scotland, given that students make no direct financial contribution – for many who pay for the provision of university education do not participate in it, and much of what is paid for may not be valued by the wider society, nor deserve to be.

Haldane refers to two mid-19th Century works: Newman’s Idea of a University and John Stuart Mill’s Rectorial Address to the students at St Andrews University, delivered and published in 1867 (it lasted for three hours apparently).

From the perspective of the present, the most striking features of these two accounts of the nature and value of university education is what they exclude. Newman thought that it was not the business of universities to engage in research. He writes that “a university is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement of it. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students.” Newman was not against research, but thought it should be conducted in special institutes. Mill likewise thought that the fact that certain activities are important for individuals and society does not mean they should be part of the university curriculum.

In short, the argument is this:

the growing mass of researchers may have become a drag on and even an obstacle to the pursuit of the primary purpose of universities – namely, education. It impedes the effort to put students first and it consumes vast sums of private and public funding.

So, given the new constraints on funding higher education faces and will continue to experience, the proposition is that we consider rebalancing limited funds to invest more heavily in teaching and learning and less in research. Controversial stuff but, as he shows, entirely in keeping with the ideas of Newman and Mill.

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On ‘The Edgeless University’

The Edgeless University – Demos

Available for download: via Demos Publications

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This is an interesting paper which identifies a range of significant technological challenges for higher education. It is suggested that universities are on the brink of an electronic revolution like the music industry in 1999 but struggling to make sense of the opportunities or understand the strategic options:

The next stage of technological investment must be more strategic. The sector currently lacks a coherent narrative of how institutions will look in the future and the role of technology in the transition to a wider learning and research culture.

A reasonable enough proposition although this in the context of welcoming the far-sighted establishment of JANET seems a little bit harsh – it is difficult to get much more strategic than setting up a successful shared sector wide network like this.

Many of the specific points made in the report are quite pertinent (if not entirely novel):

    – openness in terms of publication of research and free access to IP remains a difficult agenda;

    – the importance of recognising the value of teaching in the context of potentially distorting RAE/REF demands is a challenge;

    – high quality e-learning, discrete or blended, is about much more than just providing new tools – it requires huge investment and support;

    – the value of face-to-face learning and teaching should not be discounted.

Fairly straightforward agenda there then.

However, some of the ideas in here are just plain wrong. In particular the idea that there is a deficit of flexible study pathways for credit-based learning and that somehow it is the role of government to take a specific policy lead in this area:

Government policy must help higher education institutions develop new ways of offering education seekers affiliation and accreditation. This might include shorter pick-and-mix courses and new forms of assessment.

Then there is the particularly misguided idea of seeking to reconcile “informal learning” with the formal system of higher education:

Informal learning is growing in popularity and significance, and attracting the attention of politicians, but there are problems in reconciling informal learning with formal frameworks, and managing the relationship between institutions of higher education and the kinds of learning that happen outside them. We have yet to find a model for collating learning from many different sources. Funding and the structure of learning in formal higher education tend to militate against this.

There is a good reason for this – if “informal learning” can be recognised then there are actually costs in doing so and, in order to have currency, it has to be within an educational framework of some kind. More often than not though, such learning will be just “informal” – it is difficult to argue that mainstream HE provision should be skewed to cope with such marginal activity. Indeed, there remains significant adult and continuing education provision parts of which are structured for this purpose.

The overall conclusion though is pretty difficult to argue with:

In building the e-infrastructure for higher education we should not just build around the needs of institutions as they exist already. To pursue the possibilities of the ‘Edgeless University’, technology will have to be taken more seriously as a strategic asset. Technology is a driver for change. But we should harness it as a solution, a tool, for the way we want universities to support learning and research in the future.

So, the future is ‘edgeless’ it seems.

UK students: understretched or just efficient?

UK students spending less time studying than elsewhere in Europe

A new HEPI report on a survey of 15,000 students finds that they averaged 26 hours of class contact and private learning.

The BBC coverage provides a helpful list of findings:

    Vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said length of study provided no information about degree quality.

    The think tank’s survey found that students were offered 14.2 hours of teaching per week on average.

    The range was from just over 20 hours to 8.4 hours.

    The three subjects with the lowest hours of teaching – historical and philosophical studies, linguistics and social studies – had less than half the level of teaching of the most heavily taught subject, veterinary and agricultural science.

    In addition, the amount of private study ranged from 16.5 hours a week among those on architecture, building and planning courses to 9.5 hours in mass communications and documentation. The average was 12.5 hours.

    A separate survey, Eurostudent 2005, collates comparable data on the socio-economic background and living conditions of students throughout Europe. Those taking their first degree in Germany typically spend nearly 35 hours per week in total studying, and in Portugal it is about 40 hours per week.

Oh dear. So why does it take German students so much longer, on average, to complete their degrees?

But worse is to come. In a quote, which surely could not be anything like a gross over-simplification, the director of HEPI, Bahram Bekhradnia, said there was also:

a marked gender difference in the amount of studying that students did. “Boys are down the pub and the girls are in the library, you can characterise that as”

Despite this, the report really is worth reading.