Research and universities

During its early years there was some debate as to whether academic staff at the OU should engage in research. There was a victory for those who insisted that the tradition associated with Humboldt be maintained and that this was part of the job of central academic staff. The OU is now recognized for having produced some world-class research. The debate, about the value of a research-teaching synergy continues through the recent 79-page White Paper ’Higher Education: students at the heart of the system’. In their foreword Vince Cable and David Willetts, the authors, ‘want there to be a renewed focus on high-quality teaching in universities so that it has the same prestige as research’. Although the government wishes to see (p5) ‘higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching, and staff earning promotion for teaching ability rather than research alone’, it also notes that ‘At this stage, we propose no further changes to how taught postgraduates are funded’.

The Paper is enthusiastic about research arguing (pp8, 14)

The quality of research in UK universities is a national asset. Despite growing international competition, the UK research base is second in the world for excellence and the UK is the most productive country for research in the G8, producing more publications and citations per pound of public funding than any other major country. This reflects the contribution of the higher education sector to developing a research infrastructure, and a culture of excellence, that have made the UK a place where many of the most talented researchers in the world want to work…. English higher education has a high reputation for scholarship and research, which have a fundamental value in themselves, and for turning these into valuable innovation which can change the world. We have world-class research universities as well as universities which are excellent in other ways such as through their contribution to their local economy or the opportunities they provide for mature students.

However research is not covered much in the Paper. Rather the matter has been split from teaching and a decision postponed. The Paper states (pp4, 8, 39)

We will publish our strategy for research and innovation later this year…. we will publish an innovation and research strategy which will explore the roles of knowledge creation, business investment, skills and training, and the public sector in innovation and growth performance…. We have asked Professor Sir Tim Wilson, former vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and HEFCE board member, to undertake a review into how we make the UK the best place in the world for university-industry collaboration, which will inform the Government’s research and innovation strategy due to be published later this year.

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