Many academics prioritise research over teaching, claims minister Jo Johnson


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.

"It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year actually pay for," he said.

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.

'Create competition and offer choice for students'

Mr Johnson also told the two-day 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. But we want faster access for high quality new entrants to the market."

He said the Government would also be looking at using bands instead of rankings to rate universities.

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

Ahead of Mr Johnson's speech, 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."

In response to the question of whether the cost of a degree still makes it worthwhile, she said: "Official figures show that 94% of graduates are in work or study three and a half years after graduation and over 80% of those employed are in professional, graduate jobs.

"Our graduates also earn almost £10,000 a year more than people without degrees."

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.

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