A recent report from the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK seemed to be stating the obvious when it said universities focus too much energy on research. It said this comes at the expense of students, but when examining the report and its origins it seems students are less of a concern than the institute’s own economic ideologies.
The report said the Research Excellence Framework, which assesses the quality of research in the UK, ought to be scrapped because it no longer serves any useful purpose. The report argued universities are competing for a relatively small part of the UK’s research funds: less than a quarter of the roughly £8 billion doled out every year.
Most of the funding is allocated through the various research councils, which sponsor specific projects rather than institutions. So, top universities hire already successful researchers in order to get a bigger share of the pot. To top it all off, all universities have to spend staff time and resources in order to do they best they can because their reputations depend on it.
There isn’t much wrong with the argument so far. Had the report left it at that, there wouldn’t have been much disagreement. But wait, there’s more.
According to the report, the Research Excellence Framework exercise draws “significant resources and distorts resource allocation within the higher education sector away from teaching and knowledge dissemination” because there are nearly 200,000 pieces of research being put forward for appraisal, and that takes too long.
The question is whether a university’s focus on research comes at a cost to its teaching and learning. Much of the “bread-and-butter undergraduate teaching” that is supposedly suffering because universities are spending “too much energy on research” continues to be done by teaching-focused academics rather than researchers.
If anything, the increased accountability demanded by fee-paying students has caused the quality of teaching to rise, according to indicators including student satisfaction, graduate destinations and salaries, teaching hours and more. This is despite the fact that universities no longer take only elite students, the ones who could probably teach themselves.
As for the Research Excellence Framework taking too much time and effort, that may be true, but most businesses want to have a stocktake of some sort each year, to know how they are travelling, who is doing what and so on.
Bear in mind that universities in Australia have to do both the very extensive Excellence in Research for Australia for the Australian Research Council and the more exclusive Higher Education Research Data Collection exercise for the Department of Education and Training, to get a share of the research money.
So, what’s this all about? Right at the bottom of its website, the Institute of Economic Affairs comes clean:
More generally, there is a strong case for reducing the total amount of government subsidy for research and expecting universities to generate their own funds for research and scholarship or support it by reducing overhead costs.
It should come as no surprise that the institute proposes that funding to universities for research should be cut. In the past it has supported controversial measures to raise government revenue such as making immigrants pay to settle in countries such as the US and UK.
There is a concern that floating the idea of scrapping some or all of the funding allotted to universities to do independent research gives it traction in public discourse.
The counter-argument is that scrapping an open tender system leaves single boards or councils to have greater say over what gets funded, meaning the system could potentially become an elite favourites club.
Australia has both Excellence in Research for Australia and Higher Education Research Data Collection, as well as the Australian Research Council and (for the time being at least) the Office of Learning and Teaching, all supervising the allocation of the steadily shrinking research funds.
So far there hasn’t been any meaningful call to funnel research funding entirely to specific projects – even if the vast majority of it goes to the elite Group of Eight universities.
Australia’s right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs has called for an end to research funding in the past, but at least the Institute of Public Affairs doesn’t pretend it’s concerned about the quality of teaching in our universities.