Saturday, February 27, 2010

Onora O'Neill on higher education funding

. . . from her speech in the House of Lords. Full text found here. Her speech:

"[. . .] My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for securing an, alas, too timely debate. I have some interests to declare as a life-long university teacher and a former president of the British Academy. We have no doubt that these are real and large cuts. My question is: how could we make them most intelligently with the least damage to what really matters? If we look back, I believe that there is a lesson to be learnt from the 1980s when the number of students was growing but the unit of resource was shrinking. Universities cut departments and units. With a nice rhetorical flourish, these were called efficiency gains. They were cuts. Unfortunately, they tended to impact certain areas in unco-ordinated decisions with disproportionate effect.

One might say that that was the inevitable cost of university autonomy. We will face unwanted cuts and unwanted patterns again, and we have begun to see that in another topic we have recently debated. The provision of language degrees has been cut here, there and yonder. But we need to think more strategically. For whose sake should the cuts be made? Do we want to protect universities, academics, students or regional employment and development? They are all important and one would like to protect them. But I believe that that is the wrong focus. We should aim to protect good research, good teaching and flourishing disciplines. We should not provoke crises in disciplines where suddenly we find that we need yet another initiative to rescue the teaching of strategic languages, such as Arabic, because we have just let it go.

There are difficult cases and we need to consider the incentive structures with which we are living. I believe that the present research assessment exercise-soon to be the REF-comes at a very high cost and that it creates incentives that go largely to universities, not to researchers. Of course, the universities press the researchers to conform to the requirements.

When we look at incentives for teaching, we discover that there are mainly sticks and rather few carrots around. As regards the incentives for protecting the strategic disciplines, we discover that dispersed decision-making makes it very hard to protect them. Do the Government have a comprehensive list of endangered disciplines? What action do they intend to take to ensure that that danger is not realised?

There is a suggestion that we would best alter the incentive by rewarding that research which has impact. For those with perfect foresight, it makes perfect sense. For the rest of us, it sounds a bit unlikely. One cannot identify which research will have impact antecedently. Research is done by individuals and by teams. They do not always need to be co-located. It does not have to be given to universities. We need to preserve the rewards for those who are doing good research, but we need not put them in one place. There are good examples of collaborative research across institutions, and I know of a number in Scotland.

We also need to recognise that good teaching can be done by small units, and we need to reward them for doing it well rather than telling them that because they are not large enough to do the very best research, they cannot be maintained at a level to sustain the teaching. On the disciplines, we must not again disperse hard-won skills, particularly in the rarer languages and area studies.

Lastly, the impact is not good for any sort of institution. No one knows how to measure it. We do not know the causal pathways or the timeframe-I sit between colleagues who know far more than I do-in the STEM subjects. The research that feeds the creative industries is dispersed across a multiplicity of disciplines, including many in the humanities and social sciences, and so is the research that feeds effective public policy formation. When we think about impact, I remember the first time I heard the term because it was a curious one. I was talking to conservation architects and through them met two church canons who were responsible for the fabric of Canterbury cathedral. They reported to two "canons" of the cathedral called Canon Impact and Canon Treasurer. I asked what Canon Impact did. "Canon Impact does pilgrimages" was the reply. When we think about impact, we must realise that it is a rather elastic term. In the mean time, we must be absolutely certain that we do not incentivise poor research in order to have a high impact. [. . .]."

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