Shorting the truth.

by reestheskin on 21/08/2019

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Awhile back I was sat in a cafe close to the university campus. I couldn’t help but listen in on the conversation of a few students who were discussing various aspect of university life, and their own involvement in student politics. I couldn’t warm to them: they were boorish and reminded me of a certain Prime Minister. But I did find myself in agreement on one point: many UK universities are too big and if you are really serious about undergraduate education, you need smaller institutions than is the norm in the Russell group. You can have large institutions and teach well — the Open University is the classic example historically — but Russell group universities are not designed for the same purpose.

A few months back there was an interview in the Guardian with Michael Arthur, the Vice Chancellor of University College, London (UCL). In it he said some extraordinary things. Not extraordinary in the sense that you have might not have heard them before, or that they were difficult to grasp. Just extraordinary in their banality of purpose.

UCL like many universities in the UK has and will continue to rapidly expand undergraduate student numbers. The interviewer asked him whether or not UCL was not already too big. Arthur replied:

“We want to be a global player,” says Arthur. “Round the world, you’re seeing universities of 90,000, 100,000 students. If you have critical mass, you can create outstanding cross-disciplinary research on things like climate change. You can do research that makes a difference.” He mentions a treatment recently developed at UCL that makes HIV, the virus that causes Aids, untransmittable. If UCL didn’t increase student numbers, thus maximising fee revenue, such research would have to be cut back. “To me,” Arthur says, “that is unthinkable.”

The tropes are familiar to those who have given up serious thinking and have short attention spans: ‘global player’, ‘critical mass’, ‘cross disciplinary’, ‘make a difference’, and so on. Then there is the ‘maximising fee revenue’ so that research is not cut back — “that is unthinkable”

Within the sector it is widely recognised that universities lose money on research. In the US in the Ivy League, endowments buffer research and in some institutions, teaching. In the UK, endowments outwith Oxbridge are modest, and student fees fund much research. As research volume and intensity increases, the need for cross subsidy becomes ever greater. This is of course not just within subjects, but across the university and faculties.

That universities lose money on research is a real problem. For instance, in medicine much research is funded by charities who do not pay the full costs of that research. Governments pretend they fill this gap, but I doubt that is now the case. Gaps in research funding are therefore being made up out of the funds that are allocated to educate doctors, or students in other subjects. And anybody who has been around UK universities for a while knows that a lot of the research — especially in medicine — would have at one time being classed as the D of R&D. This sort of work is not what universities are about: it is just that the numbers are so large that they flatter the ‘research figures’ for the REF (research excellence framework).

Pace the students in the cafe, few can mount any argument that once you have grown beyond several thousand students that the student experience and student learning worsen. Phrases such as ‘research-led teaching’ and ‘exposure to cutting edge research’ are common, but the reality is that there is little evidence to support them in the modern university. They are intended as fig leaves to mask some deeper stirrings. Arthur states that it ‘would be unthinkable’ to cut back on research. He may believe that, but I doubt if his self-righteousness is shared by the majority of students who spend much of their lives paying off student debts.

A few years ago, whilst on a flight to Amsterdam, I chatted with a physicist from a Dutch university. We talked about teaching and research. He was keen on the idea of situating institutions that resembled US liberal arts colleges (as in small colleges) within bigger and more devolved institutions. I doubt that would be practical in the UK — the temptation for the centre to steal the funds is something VCs (Vice Chancellors not Venture Capitalists, that is) would not be able to resist. The late Roger Needham, a distinguished Professor of Computing at Cambridge, and former head of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, pointed out that most IP generated by universities was trivial and that the most important IP we produced were educated and smart students. He was perhaps talking about PhDs and within certain domains of knowledge, but I will push beyond that. Educating students matters.

And contrary to what Arthur thinks many of the world’s best universities have far fewer students than UCL even before its recent metastatic spread.