Incentives matter. Our research has shown repeatedly that this is true for the public sector as it is for the private sector: for teachers and schools, for doctors and hospitals and for civil servants. It is very likely also to be true for universities and those of us who work in them.
For the past couple of decades, universities have been very strongly incentivised to improve their research profiles. The evolving formats of the Research Assessment Exercise (now the Research Excellence Framework) have rewarded Departments and universities on the basis of their research output in a high powered way. This has been ferociously effective. As a whole, UK universities have vastly improved the quality and quantity of their research and now stand close to the very top of the international rankings.
One key insight is that while the RAE/REF itself is a collective Department-level incentive, this has trickled down to incentives for individual lecturers and professors. Universities keen to improve their research rating have created a “transfer market” for star researchers, and this has meant that recruitment effort, salary and respect have been focussed overwhelmingly on research ability. Young academics, wanting to get on, are aware of this and so spend their scarce time and energy on research.
This is not necessarily a bad thing – research is extremely important to a nation’s prosperity and cultural wealth. But it does mean that universities and individual academics have been incentivised to spend more time and resources on research than teaching. Does the Browne Review change any of this?
One of the less discussed points in the Browne Review is that new institutions can provide higher education (HE). Obviously, a new start-up university may find it hard to develop credibility for its degrees, but David Willetts, the Minister for universities, has floated the idea that they could teach towards the degree exams of established universities. This has worked in the past, and would give instant credibility to the degrees.
This opens up a range of possibilities. It seems unlikely that any single new institution would attempt to offer degrees across the whole range of disciplines. Instead we might see institutions offering, say, just a BSc in Computer Science, or just a BA in Spanish. This is reminiscent of the Independent Treatment Centres that transformed outcomes in health care; centres just doing cataracts or just hips. Obviously this does not provide the breadth of three years spent in a traditional university – chatting to people outside your subject, quizzing the great researchers in your field – but it would allow students to choose between these options and put a price on those factors.
Would this affect traditional universities, and alter the incentive structure for lecturers there? After all, this is where the bulk of students will be taught for the immediate future. It might. A new source of demand for talented degree teachers would raise their outside option and might force the traditional universities to pay more. The outcome depends in part on the co-production of teaching and research. Are good teachers good researchers, and vice versa, or not? What evidence there is suggests no strong correlation either positive or negative. In which case, there will definitely be an overlap in demand between traditional universities and new providers.
Of course, traditional universities will respond and make clear that their products are different, are distinctive. But they are likely to be more expensive too, and this gives students choices. There is likely to be a lot of innovation in institutional form and contracts following this path. How this will all pan out is unclear – the market for higher education is a complex one.
But it also creates a new market for talented degree-level teachers, and this may spill over into the pay and status of good teachers in universities. This in turn will encourage a re-balancing of lecturers’ effort towards teaching at the margin, and may have a greater impact on the quality of teaching in universities than any increased resources that may flow into the sector.