Response to ‘The Future of Higher Education’ Cm. 5735

April 2003

Introduction

MeCCSA is the national, interdisciplinary, professional
subject association representing teachers, researchers, and
students in its fields within UK Higher Education. We are
grateful for the opportunity to comment on the Higher Education
White Paper which is likely to have profound impact on the
disciplines we represent and the working environment of those
who deliver teaching and research in media, communication
and cultural studies.

There are many proposals which we wish to endorse. We especially
welcome the Secretary of State’s opening to his Foreword
statement that “British universities are a great success
story”. Our fields represent a major part of that story,
being internationally recognised for their innovativeness,
timeliness, relevance, and quality. International recognition
of their excellence in both teaching and research is reflected
in the many indicators of influence (publications, textbooks,
consultation) which speak to the pre-eminent role of our
fields in international scholarship and practice. Continuing
and accredited success in providing excellence in teaching
and research, in providing courses attractive to well qualified
students, and in graduating students with unequalled employability
records, enable us to speak with confidence of the future
for UK higher education in our area.

Nonetheless, while there are several points of detail we
would like to comment on, there are also some overarching
considerations that give us cause for grave concern about
the general thrust of the White Paper.

  1. The fields of study with which we are concerned reflect
    central features of modern society, and attract widespread
    comment and debate as major areas of influence and importance.
    At the same time they are among the most rapidly growing
    fields for employment in a modern society. Our members
    are thus concerned not only with the analysis and understanding
    of key features of social and cultural life, they also
    have a major involvement in practical training and professional
    development in core sectors of the UK and international
    economy. We are very concerned that the White Paper adopts
    an unbalanced approach to these two aspects of higher
    education. Universities are not just training centres
    for employment. The White Paper concentrates on the economic
    function of universities rather than their role in “community
    capacity building and regeneration” (p.40) and
    their importance to the wider social and cultural life
    of society.

  2. Universities are of fundamental importance to the stimulation
    of critical thinking, not least in the arts, humanities
    and social sciences. They are crucial to the health of
    our democracy. They also create new knowledge through
    scholarship and research, and nurture the intellectual
    and personal growth of their students. There appear to
    be two key principles that underpin the White Paper;
    1) a utilitarian notion that higher education should
    provide specific skills for immediate and vocational
    application; 2) an individualistic notion that the benefits
    of education accrue simply to the individual, who should
    therefore meet their cost. These are both contrary to
    experience in our field, where knowledge and understanding
    of media and cultural aspects of society underpin a mature
    modern democracy, based as it increasingly is on information
    and dynamic communications processes and institutions.

    While we acknowledge that the economic benefits of universities
    to society are vital, there is equal worth in improving
    our understanding and knowledge of contemporary trends
    such as globalisation and new information and communication
    technologies. Similarly, while we appreciate that collaboration
    with industry can be commercially beneficial, knowledge
    transfer also extends to the wider community in general,
    for example, to other public sector organisations, to
    the voluntary sector, think tanks and political parties.
    This work may not be of immediate, obvious commercial
    economic benefit but it is a major contribution to the
    economy and society and should be recognised and supported
    as such. We hope to have an opportunity to expand on
    this central concern in our response to the Lambert review
    on links between business and universities.

  3. Much of the discussion in the White Paper is couched
    mainly in terms of natural science and engineering. The
    White Paper fails to celebrate the full breadth of higher
    education’s contribution, and in doing so risks
    alienating and misrepresenting many non-science and engineering
    disciplines. The departments and scholars that we represent
    produce students who have an employment record better
    than most fields in the sciences and beyond. It is vital
    that universities have the flexibility to respond to
    changing student and societal need. Our field is a very
    good example of such flexibility, providing an excellent
    illustration of why small and dispersed departments should
    be supported.

  4. We have a strong objection to the introduction of differential
    fees, which combined with the further concentration of
    research funding (see below) in a small number of universities
    will create a two-tiered access system based on the ability
    to pay, as well as a two tier higher education system
    based on access to resources. Top-up fees destroy funding
    equality and thus genuine equality of opportunity. Most
    fundamentally we believe that the introduction of top-up
    fees, at levels that are very likely to increase significantly
    once the initial mechanism is in place, will entrench
    a “public school – state school” style
    divide in the higher education system. Whilst bursaries
    may help a few particularly talented – or particularly
    poor – students, as they do in the secondary school
    system, they will not make a difference to the majority
    experience where access to certain institutions and courses
    will be determined by ability to pay or the confidence
    to go into very significant debt.

More specific points of concern

Organisation of Research: Research and Teaching

Higher education is distinct from other spheres of education
by virtue of its research base. Teaching and research at
higher education level are fundamentally linked. This is
especially true in dynamic fields such as ours which are
rapidly changing, and in which students need to be exposed
to innovative and empirically founded scholarship. We regard
good teaching and opportunities for research to be inextricable.
The QAA assessment of our field made extremely clear the
benefits of teaching programmes delivered by staff with active
research programmes. This is not to say that all staff should
always be active researchers, but the environment in which
students learn should be underpinned by active research,
and all students should have access to staff who are practicing
researchers. Research brings a subject to life for a student
and ensures that they are taught knowledge at the cutting
edge of the academy. The opportunity to do research is also
what attracts many staff into the profession. Being able
to share ideas and be intellectually stimulated in one’s
work place is one of the few incentives left to working in
the sector. Teaching also benefits research – explaining
ones research activity clarifies the research itself and
inspires the researchers of the future.

We would like to point you to the work undertaken at the
Institute of Education (2000) that notes the benefits of
a research-teaching combine. Other research also notes that
students perceive real advantages from staff research, including
academic credibility and enthusiasm (Breen and Jenkins, 2002).
We oppose any move to a damaging and unnecessary further
concentration of research, or of a drift to a division between
research active and inactive centres. Funding for research
through the research councils and other funders will remain
a competitive source of support directing additional resources
to individuals and groups demonstrating through peer review
excellence or innovation. This should be a supplement to
sufficient funding to enable research activity across the
sector, not a marginal adjunct to a system rooted in a largely
research inactive base.

Research Collaboration

Our subject areas are defined in part by their interdisciplinary
nature and we welcome the emphasis in the white paper that
encourages working across boundaries and institutions. However,
the proposal to increase research selectivity further raises
real concerns about the practical possibilities of such cross-institutional
and interdisciplinary work continuing. Successful collaboration
requires an equal partnership, not one where all the real
prizes go to the “few” – be it “top
universities” or “top research departments”.

Research Assessment

MeCCSA is totally opposed to the decision to create a small
number of 6* departments. This proposal was generated after
the Research Assessment Exercise was completed. It creates
a quite unwarranted additional tier of concentration above
the already very hierarchical seven point scale. As operationalised
it even flies in the face of the commitment in the White
Paper (para 2.15) to base the new tier on the 2001 assessment,
and introduces an additional historical dimension ossifying
past achievement and mitigating against fast improving units.
Concentration of resources presupposes a need to collate
plant and personnel in a few locations in order to facilitate
high quality research. This is based in a model of research
produced within some areas of natural science and engineering.
We cannot see the merits of still further concentrating research
funding particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
The degree of selectivity is already crippling many departments
and institutions. New universities already receive an extremely
low percentage of money from the RAE. The latest figures
from the 2001 RAE show that 75% of HEFCE research funds are
allocated to fewer than 20 higher education institutions.
This has prevented many talented researchers from realising
their full potential, and deprived many students from the
experience of being taught by active researchers. We are
profoundly concerned at comments attributed to the Higher
Education Minister that four graded departments and below “might
well” not continue to receive research funding unless
they could demonstrate they were on the “escalator
of improvement”.

The funding model introduced by HEFCE since the white paper
has produced massive under-funding, notably but not only
in 4 rated departments (defined in the RAE as being nationally
excellent in virtually all areas with possible evidence of
international excellence), guaranteeing that very large numbers
of excellent researchers will be condemned to underfunding,
with the increased teaching loads, diminished support for
research, and the demoralisation and inefficiency that this
entails. MeCCSA represents many academics in such departments.
These departments are carrying out excellent research at
a national and international level. Removing their funding
would be catastrophic to their capacity to undertake research
and no doubt lead to another batch of departmental closures
and job losses. We would like to stress that there are very
few fields where large scale plants or big groups are necessary
for excellent research. Increased research selectivity risks
stifling small centres of excellence or dispersed and single
scholars. MeCCSA is particularly concerned about this in
light of restructuring of media and cultural studies departments
at Birmingham University and at Leicester University, where
the RAE outcome has been cited by university managements
as justification for job losses and we believe, detriment
to the students studying on their courses and to research
in the field.

Further concentration of research funding would also have
an adverse effect on the development of practice based and
hence industry-linked research in new universities contrary
to the desire expressed in the White Paper to increase such
links.

Arts and Humanities Research Council

As indicated by our earlier submission to the review on
this matter we welcome the decision to confirm the recommendation
to create a fully fledged Research Council in this area.
We hope the new Council will be fully aligned in legislation
and support with the other research councils. Our subject
domains often sit across or between the responsibilities
of the present AHRB and the Economic and Social Research
Council, and we hope to continue dialogue with both bodies
and with the new Council as to the best means of dealing
with such ‘boundary issues’.

The Roberts Review

MeCCSA believes that all PhD students should have access
to high quality training but does not agree with the suggestion
that institutions should have PhD awarding powers removed
from them. This could have severe consequences for poorer
students who cannot afford to leave their home town to study
for a PhD, yet have no local institution that can meet their
needs. To ghettoise certain universities and the staff within
them so that they have no opportunities to make links between
their teaching provision and emerging research would not
be to send a signal about the importance of teaching, but
to downgrade it.

Teaching and Learning

When earmarked funding is excluded, the unit of resource
for teaching is static, and for many universities will diminish,
not least where, after many years of pressure to do so, they
have recruited large proportions of well qualified school
leavers. The fact that the unit of funding for teaching has
received no real terms increase is a cause for alarm. Teaching
incentives offered in the White Paper concentrate on rewarding
the “stars” or “best” teachers. This
will only serve to further de-motivate staff who have delivered
the government’s expansion targets over the last two
decades. The student: staff ratio has doubled in the last
two decades and now stands at 18:1. For many of the very
popular communication and media courses it is far worse.
The White Paper proposes no solution. It is of great concern
that in attempting to reach the 50 percent participation
target no reference is made to increase staffing levels.

It may be appropriate in research to identify where
the best research is taking place and then to channel further
funding its way, on the basis that the same kind and level
of research does not have to take place in every institution.
This is not true of teaching, where every student deserves
the same benchmark quality. There is little evidence that
funding “star” teachers, or departments, will
do much to disseminate good practice. Institutions need resources
to create smaller classes and reward all good teachers.

Quality Assurance

We appreciate that the QAA have listened to staff concerns
about the levels of bureaucracy involved in quality assurance
procedures. It is too early to assess the impact of the lighter
touch regime. We would commend the provision of “impact
assessments” on any new proposals in HE as noted by
the Better Regulation Task Force.

Degree Standards

Rather than increase bureaucracy with ever changing QAA
procedures MeCCSA supports the strengthening of the external
examining system as a means of ensuring quality. However,
it is increasingly difficult to find appropriate external
examiners willing to undertake the role – the professional
and financial awards for doing so are unappealing, and indeed,
given the demands and pressures on many senior academics,
they are often deterrent. This must be tackled in order to
sustain the system. Currently there is insufficient coordination
between external examiners. There could be a specific role
for subject associations in bringing together small groups
of external examiners to review standards in their disciplines.

Fair Pay

The International Association for Media and Communication
Research (IAMCR) has recently undertaken research on women
academics in communication, media and cultural studies and
revealed a large degree of discrimination (Carter, 2002).
There is nothing in the White Paper to address issues of
equal pay and this is of real regret.

As with other disciplines we are also experiencing difficulties
in recruitment and retention. Although the evidence for this
is only anecdotal it is a cause for grave concern when student
debt is rising. Attracting new recruits to the profession
will be increasingly difficult on the low starting salaries
that currently pertain.

We are not in favour of Performance Related Pay. Much work
in the disciplines we represent is based on team working,
peer feedback and the sharing of ideas. Rewarding individuals
at the expense of the team can only undermine morale still
further and create unnecessary tensions.

Teaching-only institutions

We do not believe that creating teaching only universities
will enhance the status of teaching in higher education.
We believe that the relationship of teaching to scholarship
and research should be encouraged in the provision of higher
education. The Gibbs and Habeshaw (2002) research referred
to in the White Paper is explicit that the creation of teaching-only
roles tends in practice to devalue teaching:

“Institutions have also introduced “teaching-only” posts
of a variety of kinds, sometimes with the same titles (such
as “Teaching Fellow”) used for rewards in other
institutions. However these almost always involve lower
pay, poorer conditions of service and fixed term contracts
and therefore have much lower status. Such teaching only
posts probably achieve the opposite of what recognition
and reward schemes achieve. Academics are likely to orient
their behaviour so as to avoid the possibility of a career
stuck in such inferior posts, by emphasising their research
rather than their teaching.”

[Recognising and Rewarding Excellent Teaching.
Open University 2002]

MeCCSA believe strongly that higher education teaching requires
an active engagement in subject scholarship for all staff,
and opportunities for research and scholarly activity for
all. We do not suggest that all staff should always be active
researchers but we do say that HE requires an appropriate
research environment where students have access to those
engaged in research enquiry and methods.

Foundation Degrees

We share the views of Skillset, the national training body
for the audio-visual industries, that it is highly unlikely
that Foundation Degrees in media studies will serve as suitable
entry qualifications for the media industry in all but a
very limited number of technical roles. Most employers seek
graduates with skills of a generic kind, and the flexible,
advanced and diffuse expertise that suit them to employment
in fast changing sectors of the economy.

Inclusive and Flexible Teaching and Learning

MeCCSA does not support any move to two-year honours degrees.
We cannot foresee how this is possible without greatly shrinking
(and in many cases extinguishing) any opportunities to undertake
scholarship and research. While it is possible (though detrimental)
to abbreviate the period of teaching it is not possible to
similarly truncate the time required for learning. It would
undoubtedly lead to a greater concentration on casual staff
in the delivery of teaching and have profound implications
for quality. Learning requires more than the ingestion of
bodies of knowledge, and requires time for reflection, debate,
discussion, and engagement with ideas and literature. Efficiency
would be gained at the expense of depth and effectiveness.
This is certainly not the time for the UK to be moving to
producing graduates with more shallow knowledge and competence
than those in other countries.

Drop Out Rates

It is surprising to note that the White Paper makes no reference
to financial hardship as one of the factors that contribute
to student drop out. It is the experience of our members
that financial hardship is a real issue for students who
are forced to take excessive levels of part-time employment
to the detriment of their studies. The introduction of differential
fees will increase the financial pressure on some students
and lead to an increase in drop-out rates. We believe it
would be unacceptable to fine institutions for failing to
meet their ‘drop out benchmarks’ (para 6.28)
when one of the major influences at work is the government’s
own student funding regime.

The Access Regulator

MeCCSA fully accept the need to widen participation in higher
education but we do not believe that creating another layer
of bureaucracy in the form of the access regulator is the
correct approach. Universities should be accountable for
their admissions policies but this should be demonstrated
through the funding councils – it does not require
a whole new system of regulation. We anticipate submitting
further comments to the Consultation Unit on the paper ‘Widening
Participation in Higher Education’ before June 2nd.

References

  • Institute of Education (2000) Interactions between
    research, teaching and other academic activities
    ,
    Final report to HEFCE as part of the Fundamental Review
    of Research Policy and Funding
  • Breen, L.R and Jenkins, A. (2002) ‘Academic Research
    and Teaching Quality – the Views of Undergraduate
    and Postgraduate Students’, Studies in Higher
    Education
    27(3):309-327
  • Gibbs and Habeshaw (2002) Recognising and Rewarding
    Excellent Teaching.
    Milton Keynes: Open University
    Press.
  • Carter, C. et. al. (2002) Media Associations Research
    Project. Unpubl. paper to IAMCR conference, Seoul, S.
    Korea, July 2002
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