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Many academics prioritise research over teaching, claims minister Jo Johnson

Published 09/09/2015

UK Universities believe the UK should remain in the EU, its head will say
UK Universities believe the UK should remain in the EU, its head will say

There is too much "patchiness" in universities, with some academics concentrating on research rather than teaching and a belief that students would rather enjoy themselves than study, the universities minister has said.

Making a speech at Universities UK's annual conference, Jo Johnson told vice-chancellors he had heard of many "inspiring academics who go the extra mile".

But referring to what academics David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper describe as a "disengagement contract" with students, Mr Johnson said: "This goes along the lines of, 'I don't want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don't want to do coursework that would distract you from partying, so we'll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees'.

"This is not a contract I want taxpayers to underwrite.

"Because many universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output, teaching has regrettably been allowed to become something of a poor cousin to research in parts of our system.

"This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue.

"There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system.

"It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it."

Mr Johnson said speaking to parents and students since taking on his ministerial role in May "has confirmed for me the extent to which teaching is highly variable across higher education".

He told delegates that now students are faced with tuition fees of £9,000 a year, it is more important than ever that the time and money they are investing is well spent.

Mr Johnson, who is due to publish a green paper on higher education in the autumn, said a new framework will see universities have to provide greater transparency on what they spend their money on, and give students more information about the teaching they will receive.

Financial incentives will also mean universities who offer high quality teaching are able to increase their fees with inflation.

Mr Johnson also told the conference at the University of Surrey in Guildford he wanted to see it made easier for institutions to use the title of university.

Afterwards he told reporters that the current system "really makes it very, very hard for new players to get in and create competition and offer choice for students.

"We want the best quality new entrants, we want much faster routes to access to student support, much faster routes to degree-awarding powers, and much faster routes to university title."

But he added: "We're not dumbing down and we're not lowering quality."

Another key issue is encouraging youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, along with more black and ethnic minority students.

University UK president Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow called for the Government to offer support in attracting qualified international students and staff to UK institutions and to invest more in research as she said the UK is lagging behind other countries.

She also spoke of the planned European Union referendum, describing the UK's current membership status as "vital to the success of the country's universities - contributing to economic growth, employable graduates and cutting-edge research discoveries".

EU membership "makes the UK's outstanding universities even stronger", she said.

"In the referendum debate, universities must stand up and be counted. We should be a powerful and positive voice."

Prof Goodfellow also addressed recent reports of a "laddish culture" and harassment of women that is said to be rife in universities.

"No-one should be put off going to university because of fear of harassment," she said.

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Everybody agrees that teaching, alongside high quality research, should be at the heart of higher education. Our high standards are one of the reasons so many overseas students continue to choose to study here.

"If the minister wishes to facilitate further improvement he needs to avoid creating a false battle between research and teaching and eliminate the problems of widespread job insecurity, and the low pay and status of academic staff, despite our excellent global reputation.

"The reality is that over two-fifths of university teaching staff are on temporary or zero-hours contracts. Academic pay has fallen by more than 15% since 2009 and promotions, particularly at a senior level, focus on research."

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