University's response to the White Paper on
the Future of Higher Education
We welcome the opportunity to comment on the White Paper, which has been discussed intensively at all levels of the University, both at meetings of Council, Senate and their principal Committees and in a series of seminars. We are happy to make the full records of these discussions available if this would be of interest, but the present document concentrates on the broad strategic issues which the White Paper raises, for this University, the Higher Education sector and the community at large.
· the acknowledgement of the success of the UK University sector in tripling the number of graduates over the past twenty years, whilst strengthening its research and knowledge transfer capacity, all within the context of a sharply reduced unit of resource. We believe this achievement demonstrates the high calibre and commitment of University staff, (academic, academic-related and support staff) and of those who lead them
· the commitment to address the effects of chronic underfunding of the sector
· the commitment to supporting excellence in research, and to affording higher recognition to the importance of research in arts and the humanities
· the acknowledgement of the importance of universities to local and regional economies
· the commitment to promote and reward excellence in teaching
· the commitment to the expansion of Higher Education and the encouragement of flexible responses to the needs of a diverse student body
· the restoration of grants for students from low-income families.
We have serious concerns in the following areas:
· the idea of separating teaching and research explicit in proposals to concentrate research funding
· the proposal to lower the threshold for the acquisition of university status, which challenges the principles of the Bologna Declaration
· the gradual restriction of support for research to 5* and 5-rated departments, and the associated potential to ossify the research landscape of UK universities
· the failure to acknowledge that, whilst collaboration in research is the legitimate expectation and the norm in science and a number of other subject areas, international quality research outputs in the humanities are very often the work of a single researcher.
· the separation of the knowledge transfer function from cutting-edge research
· the silence of the White Paper on postgraduate education
· the further erosion of university autonomy and the increased external burden on institutions associated with proposals to introduce an Access Regulator and to identify Centres of Teaching Excellence by peer review
· the two-tier division within the sector which the fees and funding proposals will engender, and the associated adverse effect on student choice.
These concerns are elaborated below on a thematic basis, in recognition of the common strands of the White Paper.
Research and Teaching
1. We accept the need for selectivity in research funding, but we cannot accept that grade 4 RAE departments should be considered as non-research intensive. In this, as in many other universities, a great deal of internationally important research is developed in these departments. The gradual withdrawal of funding has very serious implications for the maintenance of a national research base and for the delivery of national priorities which depend on it. An example from our Medical School illustrates this point. In the 2001 RAE, cardiovascular research at Leicester received a 5 rating within a unit of assessment rated 4. In the 1996 exercise, the same group was ‘flagged’ (the equivalent of a 5 rating) within a unit of assessment then rated 3A. Leicester ranks second only to Imperial College in terms of the combined quality and quantity of its cardiovascular research. However, this large body of internationally recognised work, which directly addresses one of the key strategic priorities of the NHS Plan, will receive no support at the Grade 5 level. Under the present HEFCE formula, this research is now suffering the reduced level of support allocated to Grade 4 units.
2. Similar examples can be found in other subject areas: in Education, there are a number of Grade 4 departments, including our own, which are undertaking research of fundamental importance to the achievement of Government targets for improving the quality of provision in schools. This includes the work of our Centre for Citizenship Studies in Education in the important areas of citizenship education and cultural diversity. Although this group has been very successful in obtaining grants from government departments (DfID as well as DfES) and others, their work is crucially dependent on infrastructure and senior staff support derived from HEFCE “R” funding.
3. The abrupt change of policy with respect to the funding of Grade 4 departments, and the disproportionate increase in support for 5 and 5* departments, will bring an unwanted rigidity to the system. It will frustrate the emergence of new talent amongst the Grade 4s and negate the dynamic effect of staff changes on the research landscape. The diversity of approach on which the development of each discipline depends will be compromised by the narrowing of the research base. The impact of this is not confined to research. The move may well diminish the attractiveness of the UK Higher Education sector to overseas students and their sponsors, who will gain the impression that excellence is to be found in only a very few institutions.
4. We support the statement in the Bologna Declaration which asserts the indivisibility of teaching and research, and unreservedly reject the notions that the two can be separated or that university status should be accorded to teaching-only institutions. The White Paper draws selectively and misleadingly on the American model in this context, as it fails to acknowledge that many of the US State Universities are effective, some at a demonstrably international level, on both fronts. Good teaching undoubtedly takes place in non-research environments, but the reciprocal benefits which the teaching-research synergy brings add an additional dimension to the educational experience of the student. Our students have made this point strongly in their own submission on the White Paper. We do not accept the implication that “scholarship”, as defined in the White Paper, is an acceptable substitute for research in this context. Exposure to cutting-edge research is essential to the development of the skills we expect and require of our graduates, as defined in the University’s Learning and Teaching Strategy. These skills are developed to their highest level through independent study in the final year of an honours course, in which students have the opportunity to undertake an extended study under the supervision of research-active staff. The value of this experience is also recognised by professional bodies, many of whom (such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics) make the inclusion of high-level project work within a research environment a condition for the accreditation of undergraduate courses. As well as providing students with the opportunity to acquire the analytical and presentational skills which employers require, research-informed teaching provides the platform for postgraduate study. The White Paper fails to acknowledge the importance of the provision through graduate programmes of high-level vocational training and the development of specialist skills to meet the needs of industry and the public and service sectors, and to support the global economy.
5. We are not persuaded that the interests of students or institutions are best served by reducing the unit of teaching resource to fund Centres of Teaching Excellence. The allocation of capital and recurrent funding to such Centres on a medium- to long-term basis will have an ossifying effect, paralleling the consequences of over-selective funding of research already noted. Furthermore, the development of a peer review process implicit in the proposal will impose an additional burden on institutions no less onerous for being unintentional.
Access, Flexibility and Widening Participation
6. The emphasis in the White Paper on access, flexibility and widening participation is to be applauded, but we would have expected and wished the document to embrace a broader vision of the possibilities open to the government and the sector in delivering this agenda. We welcome the proposals for further growth of Foundation Degree and “2+” provision, but regret these are presented as the sole vehicles for expanding Higher Education provision to meet the widening participation target. This University, like many others, wishes to increase its undergraduate student numbers in response to demand, but will, it seems, be prohibited from so doing. The cap on conventional honours courses will have the effect of limiting opportunity and choice. Similarly, we believe that the commitment to increasing participation should be broadened to include those in the over-30 age group who have no previous experience of higher education. As we stated in our response to the DfES discussion papers last December, this University is, with the sole exception of the Open University, the leading provider of professional, vocational and post-experience programmes to this group through distance learning at the postgraduate level. We have over 6,000 students registered on programmes in these areas. There is insufficient reference in the document to the potential for this mode of delivery in the context of widening participation, or to its undoubted value in stimulating continuing professional development and life-long learning in the workplace.
7 The effect of the White Paper proposals on fees will oblige the University to introduce “top up” fees to protect and enhance the quality of its teaching and research. At the same time, in order to sustain our commitment to widening participation, it will be essential to operate a bursary scheme, which is bound to be complex and burdensome to administer. We have never favoured “top-up fees” as a means of securing the additional funding which is essential to realise the legitimate expectations which the government and the nation have of the HE sector. The fees proposals imply, and sanction, the development of a two-tier university structure. They will have the effect of depriving sections of the community (by no means confined to those who would be targeted for bursary assistance) of the opportunity to attend the university of their choice. Those universities would in turn be deprived of the contributions of those individuals. The UK Higher Education sector is already sufficiently differentiated; we strongly oppose further differentiation.
8. The proposal to introduce an Access Regulator would impose an additional burden on institutions, contradicting the Government’s commitment to reduce bureaucracy.
University of Leicester
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