Commitment to Scholarship and Research in Universities
Published June 1993
This document affirms the commitment of all universities to sustain scholarly activities complementary to teaching. Notwithstanding recent developments towards increased selectivity in funding policies, we emphasise that nearly all academics are capable of worthwhile scholarship and research. We hold that conservation of this widely valuable resource is imperative in the national interest, and the notion of a teaching-only university is deplorably artificial.
The diverse forms of university-based scholarship and research are reviewed in §2, where crucial differences are recognised between these endeavours in sciences and in the humanities, and where assessments of productivity are seen to be often misleading. In §3 policies for the funding of scholarship and research are discussed, with reference to recent trends which appear hazardous. The university system’s urgent need to sustain recruitment of able young academic staff is highlighted in §4; and special needs of the new universities are appraised in §5. Our main recommendations are collected at the end of §6.
Most academic staff in universities have a primary obligation to teach students. Their contracts of employment usually require them to take a fair share of undergraduate teaching, and to contribute to the maintenance of high quality in their department’s meeting of this duty. But academic appointments also carry an explicit or strongly implicit commitment on the holder to be diligent in pursuing scholarship and undertaking research. Connotations of the terms scholarship and research are widely varied, as also are the extent and level of success to which individual academics engage in such activities. A careful interpretation of these terms will be included in our discussion (§2). From the start, however, it deserves affirmation that according to an appropriate definition of scholarship and research every professional academic should be committed to them.
The twofold responsibility of academics, to be scholars and researchers as well as teachers, is often misrepresented. For instance, opportunities for scholarship and research available to university staff may be deprecated as luxuries incidental to the teaching duties that justify the staff member’s salary. This view is misguided because it belies the nature of universities, which should never be mere teaching factories. In order to prosper in the long term, even those universities lacking prominent records of achievement in research need to uphold the principle of a twofold function: they must provide as far as possible for the scholarly activity of academic staff, encouraging staff in this basic, always generally beneficial way and thereby ensuring teaching quality. The priority of teaching can readily be accepted in all British universities, because funding depends mainly upon it. But, in the interests of any university’s overall vitality, the primary task of teaching should never be allowed to overwhelm the complementary function to which most academic staff can contribute.
The issues to be ventilated in this document are perhaps overshadowed by the UFC’s 1992 research-assessment exercise, the results of which appear from our standpoint to be misleading in several respects. All the universities, including the new ones (formerly polytechnics) whose special needs will be recognised in §5 below, have been assigned departmental rankings on a scale from 1 to 5. It has been announced that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will distribute 94% of about £620 million R cash on the basis of these ratings. Even departments with a rating of 3 must expect serious reductions in funding for research, and those with a rating of 1 will get nothing. Low ratings can be gravely demoralising to those who believe themselves doing good research, but who are vulnerable to under valuation because their research is currently not leading to formal publications. A characteristic of much university research is that one does not know in advance where it will lead.
While acknowledging the need to allocate limited funds for research fairly, in large part according to measures of past performance, we are alarmed by the possibility of excessive deference to such ratings which are based necessarily on subjective criteria. They are liable to undervalue potentiality in general, radical innovation and young scholars in particular. We are likewise saddened by erosion of the estimable dual-support principle over recent years, notably by the decision to transfer much of the DR-component of university funding to the Research Councils. Judged by results so far in the university system and by precedents elsewhere (e.g. in Australia), these changes are likely to be injurious to the system as a whole.
Our views about the funding of research in universities will be amplified in §§3 and 5. They amount to two main points: selectivity is a precarious policy in the hands of central agencies, needing to be applied in moderation; and today’s useful knowledge all derives from the fundamental, curiosity-driven research of 2, 20 or 100 years ago. In our view Funding Councils should rely progressively less on selectivity exercises and more on the premise that the broad support of scholarship will maintain and promote the quality of the expanded higher-education system.
2. Types of scholastic work
As a necessary qualification for appointment, every member of a University’s academic staff has well developed proficiency in some branch of learning (e.g. German, organic chemistry, medieval history, pure mathematics). An appointee will also need to have evinced ability – at least potential ability – to teach his or her subject, an attribute demanding more than erudition. Academic appointments nevertheless depend first and foremost on convincing evidence of scholarly expertise, to a level such that continued devotion to and active involvement with the field of knowledge in question are expected as natural for the appointee.
The amount and style of such involvement may vary greatly among members of an academic department: some may remain conspicuously active in the same research mode throughout their careers and others may diversify interests or slow down. But all will be preoccupied expertly with one or other aspect of their subject – basic or applied research, pedagogy, popularisation, etc. Scholarship and research take many different yet interrelated forms, most of which are valuable and worthy of encouragement by universities. Fair provision of funding and time for scholastic activity is therefore liable to be undermined by rigid categorisation and selectivity. In particular, unfairness is risked by the exclusive channelling of resources towards expensive, conventionally pragmatic research projects at the cost of studies in the more widely prevailing, curiosity-driven and extemporary category.
All academics strive to keep abreast of new developments in their subject, whether as a guide to original research or as a support of teaching. This aim requires extensive critical study of books, technical papers and other sources of information (including vast ranges of incidental material in the case of languages, history and social sciences, for example). Even when serving pedagogic purposes alone, such work constitutes research according to any liberal meaning of this term; and as it is integral to the proper functioning of universities, deliberate provision of resources for it, including time, is always well justified. Research is the only just description of much scholastic activity commonly not identified in University research budgets: for example, work on innovative methods of language teaching, or on the new uses of information technology being developed in almost every subject-area.
It should be acknowledged, moreover, that university-based scholarship and research in all their widely various forms are almost always open to critical scrutiny independently of the individual scholar. Such endeavours are generally aimed to have eventual public outcomes: for example, the results of research are published in learned journals, or new knowledge is incorporated into teaching programmes. The academic working in isolation from the rest of the world can be found nowadays only in satirical fiction.
Postgraduate teaching has the plainest dependency on a background of advanced scholarship and research. The need for up-to-date expertise at the frontiers of knowledge in an academic discipline becomes sharpened in this connection, although it may often underlie good practice in undergraduate teaching too. For reasons tied only tenuously to basic capacity to provide for them, the numbers of postgraduate students vary greatly among the universities: some universities are rightly funded to teach a large number, but others are kept to an unduly small number through limitation of resources (cf. §3).
Contrary to current trends towards increased selectivity, it can be asserted with good cause that every university should aim to develop postgraduate courses as far as possible, stretching resources to a painful limit where necessary. This objective serves two valuable purposes: first, to cater for the steadily increasing number of graduates who wish to continue or resume higher education at postgraduate level; second, and equally important, to provide a stream of able and well trained people for university posts and other jobs that require advanced qualifications. It may be added that postgraduate instruction also serves generally to encourage academic staff, being appreciated by them as an invigorating exercise of scholastic capability – a labour of love.
In several respects the circumstances of academic work in the sciences differ from those of work in the humanities. As regards most scientific subjects in comparison with arts subjects it is easier to distinguish between, on the one hand, general scholarship including pedagogic preoccupations and, on the other, research which amounts to the creation of new knowledge. The latter is plainly characterised by its intensity and demands for time, as is typical of work in the laboratory, on field-trips, and in the exhaustive analysis of theoretical problems.
Another difference is that the idiom of scholarship at the frontiers of knowledge is, on the whole, further from the content of undergraduate courses in science than in arts subjects. Although first-degree lecture courses can be enlivened by news from the frontiers, as they commonly are by many of the best lecturers, and although nowadays many undergraduates undertake a research project in their third year, the main substance of advanced contemporary research is often inaccessible to undergraduates. For the same reason, scientific academics have nearly always been trained through the standard route of research studies leading to Ph.D. or D.Phil., often followed by a period as post-doctoral research assistant.
An obvious characteristic of scientific research is its comparative costliness. Virtually all science requiring specialised laboratory equipment is expensive, some only moderately but some extraordinarily so. Universities generally have to commit a major part of their budgets to provision for science departments, because both teaching and research activities there rely crucially on the availability of scientific hardware and material supplies, on the upkeep of equipment, and on technical assistants. But such provision is seldom full adequate nowadays, and its shortcomings vary greatly among the universities.
In §3 we shall comment on several vagaries of recent funding policies for science and for universities in general, noting in particular the seemingly prejudicial influence of ‘big science’ in recent years. Here, to prepare the way, we should affirm the following truths which have been largely neglected or obfuscated in official commentary about science in universities. First, there is much highly diverse and valuable scientific research that is not seriously expensive, although it depends on a modest level of support below which it cannot survive.
Most of the work here at issue qualifies as basic and curiosity-driven research, rather than applied or strategic research which require longer-term and more costly investment of resources. It constitutes the diffuse, little publicised but fertile background of scholarly activity from which many important scientific and technological advances eventually emerge. Therefore its conservation as a part of Britain’s science base is hardly less deserving than that of the few much more expensive activities (e.g. nuclear-fuel processing) about which much more is heard.
We thus claim respect for the legion of university scientists who persist in research, complementing their teaching duties, but who have never received a grant from a Research Council. Although perhaps unspectacular, their achievements are unquestionably valuable in many areas such as biochemistry, mathematics, pharmacology and electronics. Respect is due also to those many scientists who, while doing no specific research, are diligent in keeping abreast of developments in their subject (e.g. by studying research journals and attending departmental seminars). They too contribute to the cardinal advantages of teaching in an atmosphere of research. At one time, while the dual-support principle of funding for science in universities was secure, this routine industriousness was safeguarded throughout the system. But now it is at risk.
Our second point about scientific scholarship is closely related to the last. Most academic staff in science departments are capable of worth-while basic research, given due encouragement and some reasonable allowance of time and material resources. But many nowadays are incapacitated as active scientists by lack of such support, even to the very modest level that would suffice for realisation of this potential. Looking beyond the front rank of researchers, some though not all of whom are amply supported, and beyond the numerous unsung toilers with slender support who compose the worthy – and in fact widely productive – second rank, we here recognise the many university-based scientists whose training equips them for valuable research but whose circumstances deny them adequate opportunity. In our opinion the basic health and overall effectiveness of the university system would be promoted by relaxation of selectivity to the extent of reinvigorating the research capacity of this large group of scientists (cf. §3).
Intellectual industry in arts subjects has a distinct ethos only marginally shared with scientific subjects. It is harder to assess reliably, being vulnerable when, as may happen nowadays, net productivity and quality are judged by criteria apposite to sciences. Research vis-à-vis scholarship becomes a deeply equivocal term here. Most academics working in the humanities are not researchers in the sense relevant to scientific work, even though what they do is research according to a liberal connotation. They are indisputably scholars, however, and so the term research need not be used again in this context.
An outstanding general characteristic of arts scholarship in universities is the closeness of its interrelation with teaching, undergraduate hardly less than postgraduate. First-degree courses are suffused with material that still remains the target of inquiry by scholars, with questions not yet fully answered and with points of interpretation open to revision. Inculcation of basic facts is an essential ingredient of all university teaching, of course, but in arts compared with sciences the preparatory and the advanced are much closer: the peaks are more clearly visible from the foothills. In university subjects such as history, music and languages, for example, where practice in discrimination of ideas is as important as the acquisition of facts and technique, students always gain most from interaction with teachers on familiar terms (e.g. in tutorials). While having maturer knowledge acquired by longer experience of scholarship, and so having intellectual authority, teachers too can learn much – beyond mere points of pedagogy – from communication with students, the best of whom often provide fresh insights into topics discussed. Although not unknown, such rewards of dialogue with undergraduates are comparatively rare in sciences.
Institutional provision for scholarship in arts subjects is less expensive than in sciences, but it calls for consummate care to safeguard this part of a university’s proper function. Adequate libraries are usually the principal requirement, and their maintenance can be a serious drain on resources nowadays. Shortcomings of libraries are a common complaint among arts staff in British universities, who draw rueful comparisons with the better provision in Germany and the U.S.A., for example. The deterioration of our university libraries is a national disgrace risking grave consequences in the long term, and remedies for it deserve high priority.
Other provision is needed to sustain scholarship. In particular, ingenious uses of information technology are proliferating in arts departments, and respective claims for support are now comparable with those from science departments.
It deserves further emphasis that quantitative assessment of activity in the humanities is particularly liable to imprecision. Much of the very best work has long gestation; and worth is flimsily related to measurable output. Some scholars maintain a stream of learned articles and books; but others of great distinction score quite badly in a formal tally of publications. Certain eminent scholars could be named who have published little or nothing for ten years, while remaining active and widely influential. Again, others who are high scorers might be classed as prolific producers of superficialities.
Substance and quality in scholastic work together with intellectual integrity are easily enough recognisable when experienced at close hand; but they are ill suited to quantification and external display. We can suitably end this sub-section by quoting from a recent commentary on assessment, published by a member of the NCUP, which rightly pointed out that good departments are known inter alia for the kind of work that does not go out into the world in their names. The writer continued, “This is because such places are intellectual communities with an ethos of their own (something very different from a vacuous ‘mission statement’) and not just locations for an assemblage of individual publication lists.”
These disciplines call for separate comment because they fall between the natural sciences and the humanities in respect of their research-funding needs. They include both individual scholars, who rely on facilities akin to those needed in arts subjects, and also team research involving the collection of data and its analysis which requires computing facilities, statistical expertise and much administrative support. Insofar as respective difficulties attach to the evaluation of research in the sciences and humanities, compounded difficulties are liable to beset disciplines that mix the two research styles.
3. Funding policies
Respect for the people who discharge the onerous responsibility of allocating funds for universities should not preclude criticism of their performance. Doubts regarding the consequences of recent trends deserve to be expressed frankly. We are doubtful in particular about certain actions and underlying policies of the HEFCS. Misgivings also arise from proposals by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils (ABRC) and the Advisory Committee on Science and Technology (ACOST), which are broadly influential on the current situation of university-based research.
Let us first recall the precept that once underlay the funding of scientific research and other scholarly endeavours in universities. It was that the normal ongoing vitality of such work should be sustained by a share of block grants (allocated by the UGC and then the UFC), and that special needs for the support of research – such as expensive equipment beyond the basic resources of a ‘well-found laboratory’, or provision for international visits – should be met ad hoc by Research Councils. Selectivity depending on established reputations of success in research has always been inherent in university funding; it has largely determined the R-component of block grants. But in the past its effect has been on the whole wisely moderated. Rigorous selectivity was deferred rather to the Research Councils, where competition for grants is in general judged by a continuous process of peer-review.
The Research Councils have a good record of efficacy in their original mode of operation. The MRC and NERC deserve particular commendation. Sterling advances in biomedical research have been fostered by the MRC, for example, who have done quite well with the rather limited resources at their disposal. Some just criticism can be directed at the Research Councils, notably for excessive bureaucracy at times and for their tendency to favour central laboratories at the expense of more economical, better guided and wider ranging university-based research. But we have general confidence in them, at least in their original mission.
Our main apprehension about them at present arises from the new responsibilities imposed on the Research Councils by transfer of funds from the HEFCS. Being now required to allocate university funding selectively for overheads and for equipment at the well-found-laboratory level, they will be prone to increased bureaucracy and concomitant inefficiency, and will unavoidably reinforce the spread of the teaching-only label that threatens to infect many universities. Other regrettable consequences of the new norms are that it will become progressively more difficult for young researchers to get started and that, whereas grants from Research Councils used to be spent wholly in the recipient departments, overheads may nowadays be spent far from the researchers who earned them.
It should be recognised plainly that there are general dangers in requiring previously block-grant funded research to be subject to funding decisions by Research Councils. This development could mean that the only research to be supported would be that deemed appropriate by external assessors according to incidental criteria (e.g. perceived national or economic priorities, fashion, even prejudice). Thereby freedom of inquiry could be stifled.
We are also alarmed by the proposals by ACOST to divide research funding in the UK arbitrarily into provision for fundamental and for mission-oriented work, to privatise leading laboratories and to set up a “purchaser-provider” relationship for funding. We share the view expressed by an NCUP member – an eminent biomedical researcher – in a recent letter to a newspaper, that these ACOST privatisation proposals are “ideological rather than pragmatic”. He also wrote, “ACOST is introducing an entirely artificial divide that threatens to squander one of our greatest assets, the inventiveness of our scientists.”
Regarding the proposals to privatise leading laboratories in universities, it should be added that practical experience in them coupled with common sense provide the stoutest counter-argument. We must first appreciate that charitable foundations have long been major supporters of research in universities, notably in the biomedical field. In recent years, moreover, all universities have won increased funding from industry and other non-governmental sources, typically for research under contract. In respect of both the total extent and the practical ramifications of this supplementary support, however, the proposals in question are gravely ill judged.
Industry is uniformly reluctant to spend much more on universities, rightly believing that the taxes imposed on it pay for the fundamental, long-term but perhaps eventually highly valuable research done there. It is simply impracticable to turn a successful university laboratory into one subsisting successfully on a “purchaser-provider” relationship alone. The laboratory’s most crucial commodities, its intellectual ethos, its prolonged time scales and its dedication to free, curiosity-driven scientific exploration, would be cancelled by such a transformation.
An unduly pervasive influence
It seems that much recent thinking about the disposition of resources, in the ABRC, in funding agencies and even in universities themselves, has been prejudiced by the special demands made by some kinds of scientific research. In particular, much emotive colour surrounds ‘big science’ (e.g. experimental nuclear physics, radio astronomy) which is startlingly expensive. While appreciating the desirability of generous investment in these exciting and costly areas, both for the upkeep of strength in the UK and for international projects, we strongly favour more vigilance towards overall economy in science funding. Greater attention should be paid to unbiased indices of productivity (of good, eventually useful science and trained manpower) which measures could be devised to represent the realistic return on money spent.
Extreme selectivity may well be justified in relation to big science and a few other areas, concentrating resources exclusively in order to reach some preconceived threshold of viability. Such a policy may be seriously uneconomic, however, in relation to the diffuse, continually active and progressing gamut of science as a whole, in many parts of which productivity in realistic terms is notably higher than in the specially expensive areas. Above all, the assiduity of funding authorities should not be further distracted by the special arguments that have been used resolutely – with admirable success – in defence of big science.
In the interests both of overall productivity and of justice within the funding arrangements for universities, we plead for general moderation in the application of formulae based on research-assessment ratings. It has to be conceded that in a few subjects there is adequate justification for the tenet ‘lots for the most deserving, little for the rest’. Again, ‘equal shares for all’ would be unrealistic. But we hold strongly to the rightness of ‘something for, everybody who deserves something’. The encouragement of new initiatives deserves to be an aim of funding policies, as well as the furtherance of activities already well established; but such non-specific promotional intentions are regrettably absent from recent announcements by HEFCS.
As noted in §2, most universities have greater capacity for valuable scholarship and research than is represented in the results of quantitative research assessments; and realisation of this potential, to the benefit of the university system’s overall usefulness, will require more liberal, less mechanistic funding policies than at present. Research-assessment exercises as in 1992 are admittedly an expedient and reasonably fair guide to the allocation of limited funds to support work in the sciences. They are nevertheless fallible and their use should be tempered by appreciation of the academic scientific community’s universal needs. As regards scholastic work in the humanities, they are inherently precarious, and so support should be allocated on a more resilient and widely considerate basis.
4. Young scholars
The vigour of universities and the value of their services to the community depend fundamentally on the recruitment of skilled academic staff, whose level of expertise in some field of learning and whose professional dedication have to meet high standards. Being determined internationally through the robust interlocution that characterises the world of learning, such standards must be upheld resolutely in our nation’s interest. It is therefore of great importance to British higher education, particularly in its current course of expansion and unification, that young people of sufficient intellectual calibre to serve as university teachers and researchers should continue to be attracted into these careers.
This vital issue has several uncomfortable ramifications at present. First, the age distribution of academic staff in British universities is highly skew towards the top, as a consequence of the large, perhaps imperfectly managed expansion during the 1960s and early 1970s. Since then the rate of recruitment of young academics has fallen steadily, becoming alarmingly low over the last 15 years.
Second, whereas the total number of academic staff in British universities (and polytechnics) has been more or less steady for 20 years, there is worrying evidence of decline in quality. The decline is difficult to quantify, needless to say; and it has been repeatedly denied by Government Ministers; but the wealth of incidental evidence available within professional organisations such as the NCUP is ample cause for concern. We share the alarm articulated by “Save British Science” and other organisations, which have drawn attention to the regrettably high number of young British scholars with high-level ability who have moved overseas in recent years. Although transfer of intellectuals should be esteemed as a tradition among free nations, the net outcome for Britain recently can be recognised as a loss of alarming extent when allowance is made for quality.
Similar concern arises from the rising proportion of the brightest young talent, particularly scientists, who abandon prospects of careers in university-based research and opt for other careers, often ones unrelated to their technical training. The cleverest young people, well tested by acquiring advanced expertise in some scholarly discipline, are always in demand by the employment market; nobody can justifiably blame any individuals among them who choose careers incommensurate with their potentiality as scholars. But the steady drain of talent from its natural province must be regretted. In the years to come, a conserved stream of high-level intellectual ability will be the mainspring of scientific and technological advance, of social progress and of national competitiveness in general; and universities are commonly the best custodians of such resources.
Accordingly, it is imperative that the university system should resolutely plan ahead to improve its recruitment of young scholars. Such people are attracted to university jobs primarily by the opportunities provided for continued devotion to advanced scholarship, and so any university’s record of promoting scholarship and research will usually be its main advantage in recruiting young academic staff of high calibre. The academic succession is by no means secure in Britain as the 21st century approaches; but the success of the changes recently wrought on the system – changes we believe to be potentially of great value – will eventually depend on this factor more than any other. Every university should strive somehow to expand provision for recruitment at the postdoctoral level, stemming the brain-drain which at this level is the most detrimental to the national interest; and policies of Funding Councils should reflect this worthy general objective
5. Needs of the new universities
The general case in favour of more broadly considerate, less mechanised policies for the support of research applies with particular force to the new universities (formerly polytechnics). These universities were given generally low ratings in the 1992 research-assessment exercise. But there were some notable exceptions (ratings of 3, 4 and 5 for practical subjects such as art and design, computer science, town and country planning); and the aggregate rankings should be judged in relation to the history of these institutions. Before abolition of the binary divide they received virtually no collective funding for research, while their academic staff were commonly appointed without any contractual obligation to engage in research. In this light the new universities’ standing in the research league table, filling the bottom end but overlapping with the traditional universities in a range of subjects, can be appreciated to represent commendable evidence of scholarly achievement. Above all, it implies potential for advancement of these universities, which can rightly aspire to eventual comparability in full with others in the higher-education system.
In order to progress along the upward path heralded by their new titles, however, these universities will have to overcome grave disadvantages. In particular, they will have to redress the roots of the often heard – and unfair – sarcasm that they are ‘universities on the cheap’, with low unit costs and with corresponding underestimation of their mission by the Government and funding agencies. They are thus generally liable to be classified as institutions meant for teaching only, having little right to provision for other scholarly activities. It has to be conceded that, in comparison with the traditional universities, academic staff in the new universities include proportionally many more who are not active scholars. Although likely to be energetic and effective teachers, these academics may have much scholarly capacity inhibited by heavy teaching loads and by lack of institutional provision – including time – for other activities.
On the other hand, the new universities have established good records of research on special projects funded by the PCFC (now absorbed into the HEFCE and other HEFCS), and in research (applied rather than basic) undertaken for local companies and governmental authorities. The low average rankings in the recent research-assessment exercise may be attributable in part to the assessors’ underestimation of such research, in comparison with basic, curiosity-driven research which remains the main province of the traditional universities. Comparatively few academic staff in the former polytechnics have contributed so far to this typical research, but prospects for a valuable widening of participation are clearly indicated, as also for much greater involvement in basic and strategic research.
The priority of teaching must be recognised as inherent in the mission of the new universities: they should be given every encouragement to continue doing what they do well. But funding policies that treat them rigorously as teaching-only institutions, as also may soon be the lot of some traditional universities, would be gravely counter-productive in the long run. Scholarly activities complementary to teaching also deserve systematic encouragement by Vice-Chancellors of the new universities, with commensurate appreciation of and support for these worthy aims by Funding Councils, because such activities alone foster the general atmosphere of learning that is the most valuable attribute of universities. Every university student can benefit from exposure to this atmosphere of learning; his or her experience of higher education would be poignantly deficient in its absence, however nominally useful the courses taken; and its ambience is generally a guarantee of quality in teaching. We therefore hold that the general promotion of scholarship and research as an essential adjunct to teaching is now a prime responsibility of the new universities Vice-Chancellors, being the surest route to progress in these institutions.
In competition with the traditional universities, the new ones will probably long continue to receive comparatively little central funding for research. A plea for sympathetic recognition of special needs is well justified, however, in the interests of long-term prosperity of the higher-education system as a whole.
In our view funding policies should gradually de-emphasise selectivity and the all-or-nothing principle now applying in some subject-areas, particularly big science and other expensive activities, and should refocus on provision for a wide background of university research endeavours, which will need only a moderate level of funding but which will be highly productive overall in relation to this country’s economic competitiveness.
Preconceptions about capacity for basic research should therefore be largely abandoned in due course, and the notion of a teaching-only university should be repudiated, at least moderated by allowance that most academics are capable of worth-while scholarship and research when given opportunity. With particular relevance to prospects for significant advancement in the new universities, some reinvigoration of the dual-support principle for university research would be widely welcome.
We reaffirm that scholarship and research are essential parts of any university’s function, not incidental or part-time occupations. Good university teachers are, in a real sense, continually doing research anyway; and thus the line between activity needed to support teaching and activity that may be called research is not a clear one. The threatened separation of teaching from research underestimates the nature of university teaching. We must urge, therefore, that this trend in funding policies should be reversed, or at least mitigated by clearer recognition of its hazardous effect on the integrity and quality of higher education.
While it has to be acknowledged that not every professional academic is engaged in research of a kind requiring specific financial support, the systematic encouragement of scholarly industriousness is evidently always a worthwhile general aim for university administrations and HEFCS. Freedom of inquiry, the disciplined pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, together with its integration and application, are all intrinsic responsibilities of universities deserving careful promotion. The scholarship of discovery which should prevail there is purposeful in several ways: it contributes not only to the stock of knowledge but also essentially to the intellectual climate of a university and thereby to the quality of teaching.
The cardinal aim commended here, namely the encouragement of scholarship by institutional ethos, cannot be fulfilled adequately nowadays without practical, broadly sympathetic support from Vice-Chancellors and others in the chain of university management. This aim continues to bear crucially on every university’s overall capability and esprit de corps, however, and resources should still be stretched as far as possible to meet it even in face of shortfalls in funding, increasingly heavy teaching loads and other current difficulties. Wherever possible adopting more flexibility in the allocation of resources, universities themselves and HEFCs should devise more incentives to encourage further research activity; and they should not fail to provide for inexperienced researchers with high potential but no track record. Particularly in the sciences, no matter how poor a unit’s prior research rating, money should be made available somehow to stimulate new growth of research.
A significant amount of selectivity in the funding of universities is inevitable, being desirable to ensure the economic use of national investment in higher education. But our plea for moderation must be reiterated, both for pragmatic reasons and for high-principled ones which we do not hesitate to embrace. First, research assessment and consequent selectivity cannot be efficient as an ongoing process because the scope for selection erodes with each iteration. At every stage, innovative developments, original initiatives in general, the needs of young scholars and the potentiality of the new universities are all liable to underestimation. As emphasised in §§2 and 3, moreover, research assessment is largely undependable in arts subjects.
The second set of reasons why we appeal for moderation in selectivity focuses on the ultimate robustness and effectiveness of the U.K.’s expanded higher-education system. As we have stressed several times above, scholarship and research are indispensable complements of university teaching; and their preservation, which usually requires foresight in the ordering of institutional priorities, is always a long-term safeguard of teaching quality and general progress of the institution. While some re-evaluation of the traditional view about the interdependence of university teaching and research may be justified nowadays because certain kinds of scientific research are particularly expensive and so need rigorously selective funding, the basic principle at issue remains inviolable. Namely, most university teachers are committed scholars and researchers (according to a proper connotation of these terms) who deserve encouragement and practical incentives to enhance their performance in this integral part of their professional duties.
We hope that British higher education will evolve as a diverse but uniformly robust and high-quality system, contributing much towards national prosperity and harmony. We believe accordingly that the more uniform support of research in universities, with promotional as well as merely conservative intentions and with some relaxation from current policies of selectivity, would be the best way to ensure advancement of the system as a whole. Even at risk of seeming idealistic, our standpoint here is based on resolute optimism about the prospects for British universities in the years to come, and it is inherently patriotic.
Our principal recommendations can be summarised as follows:
1. Higher education cannot afford to lose its tradition of scholarship, which rewards students with insights into the continual development and unfolding of knowledge. There are multitudinous interrelations between university teaching and scholarship/research, and respect for them is crucial in order to preserve and promote quality in any part of the continuous spectrum of endeavours so constituted. Today’s basic research is tomorrow’s applicable knowledge and teaching.
2. Planning and funding of research in universities should include a widened range of incentives, and selectivity should be moderated to provide better for innovation and growth. The emergence of outstanding researchers depends on a widespread research culture, which is generally the necessary background to major advances.
3. Paramount importance should be attached to the encouragement and practical support of young academics, upon whom the future of higher education will depend.
This document is approved for unrestricted circulation. Criticism or commentary will be welcome from any reader. Responses should be addressed to the NCUP Secretariat, School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 219, Reading, RG7 3XH