IN NOVEMBER, the Government launched a consultation paper on higher education, Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice. This should provide an opportunity to raise fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of universities.
Is it their job — usually taken as axiomatic by government, and often by the universities themselves — to serve the economy by producing the workforce needed? Or is it to produce responsible and educated citizens who will serve the common good? Or is it, now that students are viewed as paying customers, to give the customers a privileged place on the economic ladder? The answer is almost certainly all three — and others as well. But there are questions over the weighting to be given to each.
The nature of higher education is changing, not least under the impact of a desire to measure outcomes. In 2014, the universities were assessed on their research output and impact. This led to the inevitable league tables, and the subsequent allocation of future research-funding largely done on the basis of “To him who hath shall be given.” As relative newcomers to the university table, the church universities had not built up a research profile to match many of the existing players.
RESEARCH, however, is not the only function of a university: teaching is, and has always been, central. So the Government’s new focus on teaching is welcome. Quality teaching needs to be given the same status as quality research, and two of the paper’s central proposals, the creation of a Teaching Excellence Framework and an Office for Students, are designed to achieve this.
The paper sets out the functions of the Office: promoting the student interest, ensuring value for money, and reducing the regulatory burden on the sector. How these functions will work in practice has yet to be seen. But the proposed Framework raises a fundamental question about how teaching quality can be measured in any accurate and meaningful way. For instance, there are doubts whether staff salary-levels and some other metrics bear any relationship to the quality of teaching at all.
The overall intention to give teaching and research equal status is pleasing, and should benefit the church universities, which, as former teacher-training colleges, have always placed a premium on the quality of their teaching. They will surely welcome the Government’s plans to double the number of disadvantaged students who are entering higher education. This is a real opportunity for them to play to their strengths in showcasing a wider, values-based version of higher education.
The Revd Dr John Gay is Honorary Research Fellow in Education at the University of Oxford and a Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester.