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Do your own research before lecturing others, Simon Jenkins

Short sighted? PA/Matthew Fearn

Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins has turned his gracious attentions to the state of higher education in an opinion piece. His views on the balance between teaching and research have been greeted frostily at campuses across the country.

Jenkins’ article is significant inasmuch as he often reflects what might be called the “establishment consensus”. He is often known as the man who took a leading role in promoting the famously successful Millenium Dome, for example. Although, to be fair, he did also argue that the London Olympics would be a disaster.

His views on how universities should respond to the government’s hiking of tuition fees to up to £9,000 certainly echo the view of those currently in government. Sir Simon’s main source for his article is, after all, a pamphlet written by David Willetts, the minister for universities and science.

Unlike Sir Simon, who has read the whole pamphlet, I am just someone who has worked in a variety of higher education institutions since the late 1980s. I am not an expert in higher education economics or policy, so what I have to say is informed just by that experience.

Sir Simon’s article starts with the claim that the rise in tuition fees means that “universities are apparently rolling in cash”. His use of “apparently” indicates that he doesn’t actually know they are, but he is willing to take someone’s word for it. What he crucially does not note is that when it raised fees, the government abolished its support for arts, humanities and social science teaching. A small part of their grant for teaching science subjects remains, but only because degrees in these areas are so expensive to deliver.

Also, in asserting that contact hours and feedback to students has tumbled since he was a lad, Sir Simon fails to recognise the massive increase in student numbers since the 1960s, a rate of increase not matched by the numbers of staff. Perhaps revealing his unsure grasp of higher education today, he claims universities are so conservative they still adhere to “the medieval three-term, three-year courses”. Most have had two semester years since the 1990s.

My main objective is however not to expose the inaccuracies with which Sir Simon adorns his article but to question his main proposal: that academics should focus exclusively on providing students with an education and undertake research in their spare time. Given that he has taken his lead on this point from David Willetts, and that his view is possibly shared by many others, it is of some importance.

While some journalists like writing articles rather than doing the research that should inform them, Sir Simon asserts that many academics prefer researching to teaching. Other than his own limited and presumably long-distant experience as an academic he has no evidence for that claim. My own experience is rather different and suggests that most of my colleagues see teaching and research as playing a complementary role – I certainly do.

Rather contradicting Sir Simon’s idea that the 1960s was a golden age of university teaching, the tendency for some academics to prioritise research dates back a long way. I was a student in the 1980s and remember well that one of the main burdens of doing a final year undergraduate dissertation was that arduous task of tracking down the world-renowned expert who was meant to be supervising me.

Teaching is now treated much more seriously, a process that predates the new fees regime. All new lecturers have to work for a teaching qualification if they don’t possess one. Where I work, all applicants have to undertake some teaching with students to establish their competence before they can be appointed. As in most other universities, our students regularly evaluate their teaching with the results being acted on if they fall below a certain standard. The form, extent and quality of feedback – and the promptness of its return – are also matters that have appreciatively improved over the last decade or so.

Sir Simon is innocent of all this, but my real concern is with his remark that research should become something for an academic’s spare time. Sad to say, but many of us already research in our spare time, and now research grants have become a rare treat, spend our own money undertaking it.

Sir Simon’s suggestion that research is a pleasurable hobby that students should no longer subsidise for the sake of their education exposes his basic misunderstanding of what a university education is all about. If it does nothing else, such an education should promote critical thinking, the ability to evaluate arguments and theories in the light of evidence. This is something all citizens should ideally possess – it is an individual and a social good, one that presumably all employers want their employees to possess. Which economy prospers where conformity is king?

Yet, Sir Simon suggests that university teaching should be based on someone else’s research as written up in books and articles – some other person’s critical thinking. It is not clear where this research is going to come from if it is only done in the evening and weekends. But even should the flow of challenging new thinking be outsourced to North American or Australian universities – I do hope Mr Willetts is not reading this - what of those who do the teaching? If academics are to impart critical thinking and the ability to test theories by evidence to their undergraduates should they not be expected to maintain those skills?

What would MA and PhD students think if their professors got their titles from reading someone else’s work? Certainly, few international students would come to a British university under the kind of regime outlined by Sir Simon.

Ironically, Sir Simon’s article shows what happens when you are accustomed to relying on second hand judgements and lose the ability to test their claims against the evidence: you get slap-dash, lazy and ultimately fallacious analysis.

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