A commitment to excellence in research and education are two key elements of the mission of universities, but some have argued the assumed synergy between teaching and research is contested and difficult to deliver. A focus on the ‘dual intensive’ universities that excel in both areas is therefore particularly illuminating.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) in 2017 provide two independent government sponsored assessments of research quality and teaching.
The REF and TEF might be imperfect and reductionist, but they permit UK-wide benchmarking and are an increasingly important reference point to shape the choice of applicants. They also allow us to identify universities which excel at both research and education and are ensuring the relationship between education and research is a positive sum game.
This visualisation shows that only 11 universities are in both the top 25% of the 2014 REF and the top 25% of the 2017 TEF when you plot REF 2014 GPA score, weighted for intensity, against TEF 2017 flag results. The use of z score leads to a very similar outcome as Wonkhe has previously covered.
These 11 are almost all under 21,000 students with Birmingham an outlier with 27,000. They are also mostly campus-based universities.
Six of the eleven dual intensives were established or received university status in the 1960s. They sit alongside the ancient universities of Oxford (est. 1096), Cambridge (est. 1209) and St Andrews (est. 1413). In addition to Oxbridge, only Exeter (receiving its Royal Charter in 1955) and Birmingham (receiving its Royal Charter in 1900) are members of the Russell Group.
Successful dual intensives have good or very good student-staff ratios with two outliers Essex (16.1:1) and Exeter (16.4:1). Some have embraced specialisation and separated their teaching and research staff to allow a division of labour. Others have focused on ensuring a commitment from their leading researchers to teach undergraduate students.
Separation runs the risk of creating a hierarchy within academic staff and the emergence of parallel teaching and research communities. Specialisation also reduces the number of staff available to return to the REF, with a concomitant reduction in research power, which is becoming ever more important as research funding becomes concentrated on a limited number of institutions.
However integration is not without its challenges. It places an obligation to recruit staff who are excellent at both education and research. It also requires universities to work with students to explain and secure their understanding of why academic staff will have breaks from the teaching programme to undertake research, and the benefits that accrue to students from studying in a research rich environment.
Dual intensives also have to work hard to manage the flow of cross-subsidies within their universities. Funders rarely cover the full cost of the research. A recent HEPI Report authored by Vicky Olive noted that in 2014-15 HEFCE estimated this shortfall to be around £3.3bn per annum. It is something of a Catch-22 that the more grants that are won – key to the success of a university excelling at research – the more cross-subsidy is required.
Olive estimates institutions make a surplus of 28% on non-publicly funded teaching, which goes towards subsidising UK research. In addition, dual intensives need to invest in research infrastructure and excellent teaching facilities, at the same time as ensuring that students get a good deal.
Managing this cross-subsidy requires excellent relations with students and their students’ union, to ensure it is accepted that expenditure on research and research infrastructure, is not at the expense of students. The growth in student numbers at dual intensives suggests they are managing to communicate a compelling offer for home and international students.
Unsurprisingly, the universities that are successful dual intensives demonstrate sound financial management reflected by average cash surpluses of around 5-8% per annum. They also have very good or excellent relations with their students – perhaps helped by being predominantly campus based and universities on a human scale.
Our very oldest universities have significant resources and reputations to draw on. However the other dual intensives have different forms of capital. These universities enjoyed the immense advantage of a clean slate to be in the words of Albert Sloman ‘freer, more daring, more experimental’. For many education and research were fused together at the moment of their foundation as dual intensive universities. They also appear to have the benefit of more participatory decision-making cultures than many civic and post-1992 universities.
Analysis of dual intensives highlights three key issues:
- It is easier to assert excellence in education and research than to deliver it.
- Dual intensives are successful in making the case to students about the benefits of the type of education they offer. However, these universities now have to make the case to government. This does not require a new mission group or the denigration of others, but recognition of equally valid modes of higher education. As the TEF shows there are many different forms of excellent teaching in our universities.
- If government wants a group of universities to excel at both education and research, it must nurture the delicate ecosystem that is required to deliver it. Reductions in the Home/EU fees including the introduction of variable fees (without back-fill from government); restrictions on the ability of universities to recruit their fair share of talented international students; and any reduction in research funding, whether through the REF, further reductions in full economic cost funding of research, or further research concentration will disrupt the delicate balance that the dual intensives have struck, with extremely damaging effects to diversity within the UK university sector.
Andrew McRae from the University of Exeter has recently noted on Wonkhe that new Universities Minister Sam Gyimah MP has offered ‘…no comment on how research spending might benefit students, just as he avoids any reflection on the distinctive combination of research and education that shapes universities.’ To the UK government, the emergence of 11 dual intensive universities demonstrates that although extremely challenging, it is possible to excel at both education and research. This group of universities is also key to the diversity of the sector and is often overlooked and undervalued.
In a variety of ways dual intensives are meeting the needs of their time by offering to students a research-led education that is truly transformative. They are doing something right and this deserves to be recognised.