David Kernohan is Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Even by my standards, this feels like a particularly fundamental question to ask: Universities do research because they are funded to do research. They have smart people, fancy kit, and voluminous archives. Universities do research because nobody else can do it as well, at as high a volume, or with as much impact.

But universities also do teaching. And academics either do or aspire to do research and teaching. And if they have a contract that says teaching only, you’d better believe they are doing as much research as they can in their own time. For all the warm words about excellent teaching, it’s research that drives an academic career and will get you your next job.

I’ve had many friends and colleagues that lived that life. A few progressed to a permanent role and the delight of juggling teaching, research, and administration. Many, many, others burned out, left the sector, or became increasingly angry and tired. Seeing that lifestyle, and that level of hardship, has put me off an academic career. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

How did this come about? Why do academics have two (and a half) jobs? Let’s start by going back in time.

A bolt of lightning

In eighteenth-century Europe, universities were at rather a low ebb.

The enlightenment was a phenomenon based around gentlemen amateur scientists, societies, and coffee shops. On occasion, some of these would hold down day jobs teaching at universities, but research was – as it is now for many early-career academics – something that happened in their own time.

The funny thing is that this arrangement was, viewed in retrospect, fairly successful. There was, in the UK for instance, the beginnings of what would become known as the industrial revolution. Many of the scientific concepts – including the scientific method itself – that underpin contemporary life started at this time outside universities.

The 1810 University of Berlin (now the Humboldt University of Berlin) is widely seen as the first step towards fixing this issue with universities, based as it was on the ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt. We have him to thank for the concept of academic freedom – which he expressed as independence from governmental and economic constraints. This academic freedom was for a purpose – to allow universities to produce autonomous individuals with a collective bond (the enlightenment idea of a citizen of the world – or as David Goodheart would have it, a citizen of nowhere.

But for our purposes, we need to focus on another of his innovations – that instruction should be based on the latest research, and that students should be seen as being inculcated into the practices and process of research. If that feels obvious now, it was a very radical idea in 1810. Universities had previously been a way for students to learn the best of existing knowledge – or as Newman would have it, universal knowledge.

The other two cultures

We can’t really talk about Humboldt without talking about John Henry Newman – his 1852 The Idea of a University can be seen as an English, and a Catholic, response to some of the ideas about the university then gaining currency in Europe and the US. The Idea has become an ideal in some circles (the stuff about “the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life” is often trotted out), but even at the time it was published it reflected a university experience that – if it ever really existed – was very much in the past. Like Humboldt’s ideas it has never been put into practice, but unlike Humboldt Newman has no time for the modern conception of research-informed teaching:

The nature of the case and the history of philosophy combine to recommend to us this division of intellectual labour between Academies and Universities. To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new.

Try that one at Academic Board.

I need hardly add that Humboldt dropped out of university twice (Frankfurt and Gottingen), whereas Newman got a lower second in classics at Oxford. And we do need to talk about Oxford and Cambridge because during this period England’s two “ancient” universities were close to being a public laughing stock. Numerous Royal Commissions through the following century restored some prestige, and both the sheer age of the two providers and their habit of educating senior figures in public life allowed for some presumption of quality to remain.

Classics and classicism

Back in the day, you knew exactly what to expect from a university education in England. You’d trot off to Oxford (or, indeed, Cambridge, if you were that way inclined) aged about 14 or 15 and take the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) followed by the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). At this point you’d be qualified to teach at the university – you’d hang around for a bit to do that and then trot off to become a priest (or some other graduate job). In a few cases – if you really liked campus life or really wanted a particular job – you would stay on to undertake further study in medicine, law, or divinity. The person teaching you as an undergraduate, therefore, was likely to be the medieval equivalent of a PhD student (PhDs – or DPhils at Oxford – were not a thing until the 1920s – and came about primarily as a means to impress Americans).

This was pretty much the case through to the early 19th century when, alongside modern subject areas, actual exams, entry requirements, and the ability to do science without studying ancient Greek, a couple of parliamentary commissions got struck into the idea of paying the professoriate a bit better, and university teaching gradually began to be seen as a career in its own right. This came alongside an influx of ideas from European universities (including Scotland here) placing a greater emphasis on academics conducting research (but not an outright requirement to do so) front and centre.

The emerging interest in university research was still controversial. A Royal Commission chaired by the Duke of Devonshire reported on the state of science teaching in 1870, comparing provision in Oxford and Cambridge with the (much superior) offer in Berlin. Much of what is recommended is at the basic process level – the universities should have entrance and exit examinations, science students shouldn’t have to take Greek or Divinity if they don’t want to – but there are a few aspirational comments on the desirability of university research:

We have no doubt that for a professor the duty of teaching is indispensable, but we agree with the witnesses whom we have examined that Original Research is a no less important part of his functions.

The report offers some tentative ideas on state funding for research – largely aimed at national laboratories and facilities rather than direct funding for universities and their staff. And there was one further novelty: for the first time, research ability should form a basis of academic recruitment:

Original research should be encouraged by taking into account any evidence of power in this direction which a candidate for a fellowship is able to give.

But this, clearly, was only in moderation. In 1877 the Commons Committee stage of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Bill saw Gathorne Hardy (then Home secretary) note:

“here was, however, no intention to carry research to the extravagant lengths which some speakers and writers feared would be the case, and which would utterly pervert the purposes of the University.

The Act as published included a clause (section 16, paragraph 3) explicitly allowing statutory commissioners to direct the use of university funds (constituted of college contributions that could now be required) for “the conducting of investigations within the university in any branch of learning or inquiry connected with the studies of the university”. Further clauses included provisions allowing the use of these funds for the purchase of “apparatus” to further research. But the specific clause allowing for the funding of professorial chairs devoted entirely to research did not make it out of Committee.

The government is here to help

You didn’t misread that, this was the government intervening in the governance and policies of an autonomous higher education provider. But we moved even further away from the Humboldtian ideal when the government started regularly giving universities money. Before RB Haldane proposed the idea of the University Grants Committee in 1904 (it became established in 1918) Parliament would occasionally send a bit of money to the universities in the form of a land grant. The First World War soaked up money and saw countless university students and staff go to the front lines never return, with the result that the then 19 UK universities were seriously under-resourced and distinctly hard up for cash.

The UGC money was (largely) for teaching, but a 1915 White Paper (Scheme for the organisation and development of scientific and industrial research) made the populist middle-of-a-war argument that we’d be a lot better off if we systemised and increased financial support for research – both on a military and civic basis. It proposed a Committee of the Privy Council – that later became (via an Order in Council) the Committee for Science and Industrial Research – which would fund research in all kinds of places, though it noted:

A great part of all research will necessarily be done in universities and colleges which are already aided by the state, and the supply and training of a sufficient number of young persons competent to undertake research can only be secured through the public system of education

The council as proposed had a rather modish ARIA-style air – it would be able to establish specific programmes of research, establish special institutions, and grant fellowships. It would work in partnership with the Royal Society and the other scientific or professional associations (where a lot of research was still being carried out) – with these being expected to be the primary source of proposals. There’s even the caveat that long term thinking, and long term funding, would be required.

We should note that the Medical Research Committee had been in existence since 1913, coming about under section 16, paragraph 2, of the National Insurance Act of 1911. It became the Medical Research Council in 1920, receiving direct funding from the Treasury but making funding decisions independently of government. The Agriculture Research Council would follow in 1931.

Andrew Fisher’s 1918 Education Bill also regularised the allocation of government funding for research – but via local education authorities! Clause 23 states that such bodies “may aid teachers and students to carry on any investigation for the advancement of learning or research in or in connection with an educational institution”. The CSIR (later the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the DISR) never had its own Act, but it did have another piece of government action to come.

Machine learning

RB Haldane’s famous machinery of government report set the general expectation that government-funded research should be managed centrally, rather than – as was previously the case – commissioned department by department. Though Haldane’s famous “principle” sets out that decisions about general research funding should be made by researchers rather than government, in practice the caveat has always been that government can (and will) get involved in supporting specific research projects.

The DSIR was always keen to split “fundamental research” – which always had a practical intention – from pure science. What universities and academics could do, at the time, was seen as primarily pure science – the more applied “fundamental” end of things happened in industrial societies and government laboratories. The tension at the time was that industry was leery of subsidising a “corps of academic dreamers” (as Sabine Clarke puts it), and wished to see practical outcomes – the DSIR was able to argue that quick answers were not always possible and that pure science was a necessary forerunner of the applied stuff.

The other role of the DSIR, and one that fell specifically to universities, was to produce skilled researchers familiar with the techniques of research that industry required.

Skills planning

By 1939 – as John Agar recounts – total government spending on research was around £20m (£1bn in today’s terms) of which half was defence research. The Second World war saw defence spending increase, and industry also started investing more heavily – by 1964 total spending stood at £412m, with industry committing a third, and half of the total committed to defence research. The increasing demand for technologies of war – most notably atomic weapons – led to the Percy Report (1945) and the Barlow Report (1946), both of which called for the training of a new generation of scientific researchers. And once again, it was universities that the government looked to.

To start with a peach of a quote from Percy:

Failure to meet the demand of industry in the past has, no doubt, been due partly to deficiencies in courses of education and training, and partly to faults of industrial organisation. University undergraduate courses may have been both too short and too specialised, and University life too little residential; in courses for the Ordinary and Higher National Certificates there may have been too little of that early scientific grounding which is as necessary to the art, as it is to the science, of engineering or of any other branch of technology

There are enormous chunks of this report that are still valid observations in 2021. There’s work called for on enhancing the “prestige” of technical professions, on careers advice (though Percy calls for this to be focused on public school pupils whose “whose bias is often overwhelmingly against the technical professions, and for most of which the Universities of the industrial Midlands and North hardly exist as possible places of education for their scholars”. There’s even a call for higher technical qualifications.

But, for our purposes, the start of paragraph 50 is key.

Research is a necessary concomitant of all higher teaching; in that aspect, freedom is essential to it; and in that sense it cannot be planned.

Humboldt’s ideal was no longer radical – he had finally won the argument.

Teaching researchers

If Percy spelt out the industrial need for trained scientific and technical staff, Barlow was focused on supporting universities in making this happen.

It is only to the universities that we can look for any substantial recruitment to the ranks of qualified scientists.

This is all very well, but who is going to teach them? Barlow encouraged universities to be more systematic in understanding their current and future staffing needs, gave the Ministry of Labour a role in publicising vacancies, pushed for younger lecturers at a lower rate of pay, and made a number of recommendations around the demobilisation of scientists and technologists in the armed forces.

The one measure the report was implacably opposed to was an increase in the workload of existing university teachers, noting:

In our opinion it is essential that the average teacher should have more and not less opportunity for his own research than he has had in the past.

It would take at least six years to adequately train a scientist for teaching – undergraduate study plus two or three years of research activity – and to this end an expansion in university research schools, alongside an increase in funding for research, was recommended.

Barlow did not have the remit to consider the need for humanities and arts graduates but noted that the committee had been informed that there was the need for a substantial increase in trained graduates in this field – cautioning that it would “deprecate” any attempt to increase science provision at the expense of other subjects.

Post-war and beyond

I don’t intend to trace the story of university research up to the present day in this piece (that’s maybe a story – covering CP Snow’s The Two Cultures, Macmillan’s premiership, and the Robbins report to start with – for another time), as we can clearly see that an expectation that research activity in universities is both valuable in its own right and an essential component of the educational activity of the university is by 1946 an expectation underpinning government policy in both areas.

This has been a quick development. In England, less than 50 years have elapsed since there was little interest in university research – and this has been a design choice rather than an organic development. Though research did happen in and around universities before 1900, it took a small number of interventions at a national policymaking level (and competition on all fronts with other nations in general and Germany in particular) to make it an expectation.

One response to “How did universities come to be involved in research?

  1. A great read – I look forward to the next instalment. In the mantime it would be interesting to know to what extent current research funding comes directly from student tuition fees.

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