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Lessons to be learnt; Chris Game on why Birmingham University's new vice-chancellor thinks teaching, rather than research, should be the priority.

Byline: Chris Game

People are often surprised that the head honcho of a university is actually the vice-chancellor. The chancellor's role is ceremonial, rather like the Lord Mayor.

For us academics, then, the V-C is indisputably numero uno, and my university just acquired a new one.

He's Professor David Eastwood, what we call a modern historian, and I must say we're pretty excited about our latest big signing and yes, the football argot is appropriate.

First, just as in football transfers, rival outfits - here, the University of Oxford - were rumoured to be interested in the Prof's services, and he broke a six-year contract to pursue the "irresistible opportunity" offered by Birmingham.

He was particularly attracted, he added, by our proximity to Tamworth, parliamentary constituency of one of his specialist subjects, Sir Robert Peel, and famed for Peel's 1834 Tamworth Manifesto, a founding document of modern Conservatism. Actually, the adding is mine, not his, but the Peel bit is true.

Second, as well as producing books about government in 19th century provincial England, the V-C has also committed to print his thoughts on Manchester United's legendary Ryan Giggs.

A Renaissance Man indeed.

What really fascinates us, though, is not the man's distinguished mind but his previous employment and I don't mean his stint as V-C of East Anglia University.

For until last month Eastwood was chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and in academia that's a big deal.

HEFCE (pronounced Hefsee) is the body that supposedly protects universities from governmental interference.

Above all, it negotiates our funding with ministers and distributes about pounds 8 billion for teaching and research in universities and colleges.

The chief exec doesn't actually dish out the moolah himself, but he's obviously useful to have on your side, especially if, like Birmingham, you're a so-called research-led university.

That term research-led university may be unfamiliar.

It's quite modern and perhaps sounds rather odd, if you had always supposed that, in higher education, teaching and research were equally esteemed and mutually supportive: teaching prompting and contributing to research, and research providing material for teaching.

In recent years, though, a chasm has opened up between the two activities.

The chasm is partly institutional, because HEFCE funds the two entirely separately, but also cultural, with the generation of new knowledge being seen - though not necessarily by our fee paying students - as more worthwhile and promotion worthy than passing on knowledge generated by others.

Mention of students brings us to the big picture.

Though students' impressions may sometimes lead them to guess otherwise, nearly three-quarters of HEFCE funding goes to teaching and under a quarter to research, although the proportions vary considerably across universities.

HEFCE's 2009-10 grant to teachingled Birmingham City University, for example, includes under pounds 2 million for research and over pounds 43 million (93 per cent) for teaching.

The University of Birmingham's figures are pounds 45 million for research and pounds 82 million (64 per cent) for teaching.

Even in my university, therefore, teaching is the much larger HEFCE income generator, quite apart from tuition fees and other teaching-based income that we get from students themselves.

Moreover, HEFCE's pounds 45 million research grant constitutes only about a third of the university's research income and a tenth of its total.

It is indispensable, as it pays for research "infrastructure" - staff, premises, libraries, computers - but money for the research itself has to be won separately from the seven national research councils and other public and private sources.

Apologies for the lecturette, but it is important to set that pounds 45 million in context because the process of its calculation, HEFCE's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), has dominated the working lives of many of my academic colleagues for most of the past three years. By contrast, their time spent directly trying to influence the much larger teaching grant formula has been nil.

The RAE is an extraordinary, and uniquely British, torment - explicable, according to an eminent Welsh colleague, only by our well-known obsession with recurrent phenomena involving shedloads of money, balls and disappointment.

We all have the lottery and Test match cricket; academics are additionally blessed with the RAE.

RAE2008, completed last December, was the sixth of these periodic exercises.

It sounds admirable - a way of ensuring research funding is allocated to institutions on the basis of the quality of their staffs' research - its originality, significance, rigour - as judged not by external bureaucrats, but by academics themselves.

What could be more reasonable? Almost anything, say the RAE's critics, those who think the exercise is indeed a load of spherical objects.

It's misleading, unscientific, unjust, and distorts universities' priorities just as Sats tests distort education in schools.

It is also damagingly divisive, setting research-led universities against the rest, the increasingly popular arts and social sciences against the natural sciences and engineering, "research active" staff against their colleagues.

But the single weirdest thing is that this contentious intellectual beauty contest, that is bound to end in tears for a good proportion of entrants, is one in which all the hard work is done, in their own working time, by the self-same academics who are being assessed.

Ministers and HEFCE set the rules; we obediently churn out the approved kinds of publications.

Obscure journal articles good, popular textbooks bad.

We then do all the dirty assessment work ourselves on a scale that beggars belief - 1,100 peer reviewers, supposedly reading and ranking books and journal papers submitted by some 50,000 individuals from 159 institutions.

Finally, when the results are published, we spin them as desperately as Alastair Campbell, thereby misleading the students, teachers and parents we should be informing.

The University of Birmingham, for instance, is ranked 24th in The Times Good University Guide, about the most student relevant publication of its type.

Warwick is 6th.

In the RAE overall rankings for British universities, again Birmingham is 24th and Warwick 6th.

In The Times Higher Education Table of Excellence, that incorporates RAE results into a measure of overall university quality, Birmingham is 26th and Warwick 9th.

Now, everyone knows that, while Birmingham is large and pretty good, Warwick is smaller, specialises more, and has a better research record.

Even so, Birmingham likes to see itself as the best university in the region, which these tables make rather difficult.

Check our university website, though, and you'll see we've discovered an RAE power table that ranks RAE results primarily by institutional size.

Warwick's quality index score (53.4) licks our 48.3, but we've got more "research active" staff, so we're 12th and they're 15th.

And guess what - "RAE confirms Birmingham's position as West Midlands' top university".

OK, everyone else plays similar games.

But note the language.

Not "top research university", but "top university", on the strength of a contrived, wholly research-based table.

It's one small illustration of that systemic emphasising of research over teaching that I referred to earlier.

Here's another more personal example.

Until this year my department ran an undergraduate degree - small, semi-vocational and quite specialist, but that produced good results, recruited well from minority ethnic groups and was commended by external examiners.

It was summarily axed, because undergraduate teaching was felt, in the axe-wielder's words, not to represent the most productive use of our intellectual resources.

My colleagues have in effect been barred from undergraduate teaching, and the satisfactions and potential career benefits that derive from it.

Which is where Professor Eastwood re-enters.

Not to restore our degree - sadly, that's long gone - but hopefully to bring his authority, experience and views to bear on a university, at least parts of which have been driven in recent times by that kind of bankrupt thinking.

The reason for my optimism is that the new V-C has form.

I've not met him, but I've heard him lecture, before he even took up his post, at a Teaching and Learning conference - a significant and symbolic action in itself.

And I've heard the vehemence with which he dismissed ideas not dissimilar to those of the axe-wielder, that "teaching is what schoolteachers do", and that universities are about "facilitating learning opportunities", not teaching.

"Profoundly misguided" were his words.

"Teaching is at the heart of what universities do and are." Welcome, Vice-Chancellor," are mine.

Chris Game is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham Tomorrow's Agenda: Justice Secretary Jack Straw on crime and punishmentIt is also damagingly divisive: setting researchled universities against the rest, the increasingly popular arts and social sciences against the natural sciences and engineering, 'researchactive' staff against their colleagues

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Professor David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 5, 2009
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