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What is academia without scholarship?

Research is an essential feature of academic life

What, exactly, is a university? Is it simply an extension of school? Three more years in sixth form, doing slightly harder work? Or is it an FE college with pretensions? A finishing school, even? We can probably agree that a university isn’t — or shouldn’t be — any of these things. Because although universities provide educational courses, like all these institutions, there is something else that universities must do. And that core, defining thing is requiring their academics to do research.

Hold your horses, I hear the teachers out there say, some of us are researchers too! True enough, many teachers have PhDs and some enlightened schools even provide sabbaticals for staff from time to time. I gave a talk recently at an academically outstanding independent school where the general intellectual calibre was clearly higher than in a good many tertiary institutions and where staff had published articles and chapters in learned books. But we can surely agree that in most schools there is no compulsion for teachers to pursue research. 

At universities, on the other hand, students should be able to count on the fact that they will be studying with tutors who are world-leading experts in their fields. You’re going to be taught not just by someone who tells you to read a book, but by the person who wrote the book. Since there is no national curriculum in higher education, a prospective student should do their homework in choosing a university, since the teaching they receive — in humanities subjects at least — will often be geared towards the particular research interests of the academics employed there. And these academics then train students to do research of their own.

Historically, it would be fair to say that a somewhat lower premium was placed on research at the old polytechnics, which is not to say that none was going on. After 1992, when many former polytechnics were granted university status, research began steadily to loom larger, and the more ambitious institutions in this group have gone to considerable efforts to punch above their weight in the REF. (Research Exercise Framework: the periodic census in which academics’ research is assessed, upon which basis universities receive government funding.) Though the REF is widely loathed among academics — it is bureaucratic, time-consuming and sometimes used as a blunt measure to determine promotion — keen researchers who have ended up at post-92 universities for whatever reason have historically been rather grateful for its existence, at least in the form it has taken to date. (Troubling changes in the format are, regrettably, afoot.) The REF has undoubtedly encouraged institutions to support research that might otherwise have been inclined not to.

Until now. The Brighton University branch of the UCU, the academics’ union, recently posted on Twitter/X that Brighton’s principal had written to staff with bad news. Not only is a voluntary severance scheme to be opened (seeking further job cuts on top of over 100 redundancies last year) but there are allegedly plans to remove all staff entitlement to research time. There is widespread concern in the sector that other institutions might head the same way. Rumours of reductions in personal research time are rife. A recent study noted “remarkable growth” in the numbers of staff now employed on teaching-only contracts. Research-led teaching — the gold-standard — seems increasingly to be treated with indifference, with institutions pressuring staff to devise modules that are team-taught and generic, so they could be delivered by anyone. Some universities have gone from placing high demands on their research-active staff to behaving as if it’s all just a frivolous luxury. 

And so we move inexorably closer to a two-tier higher-education system. There is no question that our top universities will continue to support research. Oxford and Cambridge offer Junior Research Fellowships that allow promising postdoctoral scholars to spend three years entirely engrossed in their area of specialist interest. They and the redbrick universities expect their staff to maintain a cutting-edge research profile, to apply for prestigious grants, and to devise research-led teaching. This isn’t just about generating income: it’s reputational. Some of the newer universities, on the other hand, appear to be aspiring to return to their pre-92 roots. Presumably this will mean concentrating on vocational subjects and having staff in the classroom most of the week, delivering other people’s “content”. Those courses might give students useful practical skills, but are they academic degrees?

there seems to be a growing hostility towards research that is more purely academic

In future, new universities might tolerate allowing academics in the sciences, social sciences and business studies to do research of a kind that influences product development, supports industry or drives “social change”. But there seems to be a growing hostility towards research that is more purely academic, even if it results in books and media outputs that reach a wider public. (This is surely why many universities are suddenly rushing to rebrand the arts as “the creative industries”.) University bean counters, who evidently cannot see the value in knowledge for its own sake, have presumably decided that letting academics do “pure” research is too risky: yes, that project might yield a good return on its investment in terms of REF income, and you might win that massive grant. But either endeavour carries the risk of failure, so let’s not even allow you to try. Such is the mentality when a university stops valuing intellectual endeavour and simply becomes a business. 

But let’s be clear about this. You shouldn’t get the badge if you aren’t prepared to do the work to earn it. A “low-value” degree course is not, as the government might sometimes be interpreted as insinuating, one in English or History of Art. Rather, a low-value degree is one that is not grounded in research-led teaching. Any institution that is not allowing its academics to do research cannot claim to be offering students an education that is at the forefront of scholarship. Such institutions should be clear about their new status and honest with students and rename themselves forthwith. A university without research is not a university.

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