The purpose of a university

Not so long ago, I said here that the purpose of a university used to be teaching and research; now it is income generation and advancement in the league tables. Well, you know all this, but I would like to expand on it a bit; I have been shocked to realise how quickly and completely it has happened. I must make clear that, though many of my examples are taken from my own institution, almost everybody is going through similar things. If you are not, I would love to hear from you!

On my webpage I quote Andrew Graham, Master of Balliol College Oxford, from the College magazine in 2005:

Clearly we must explain more forcibly, especially at the highest levels of government, that the primary goal of universities is teaching and research, and that income is a constraint, and not the value to be maximised.

He has just stepped down as Master. But towards the end of his reign, a very different story was being told. The magazine, which contained some very good reading on a variety of interesting topics, has been replaced by an A4-format glossy which begs us all to make generous donations to the College and extols those who have done so. I have resisted the temptation so far; I regard it as rather tactless to appeal to academics who are facing similar or worse problems in their own institutions.

So what has happened to teaching and research?

It is easy to say what has happened to research. We are judged, not on the quality of our research in the old-fashioned meaning of the term, but by the “quality” as measured by the amount of grant income we get, and the impact factors of the journals in which we publish. Nobody will be appointed to a chair in a modern British university unless they have a good track record of grant income. Even for lower-level positions, reading the papers is now less important than logging how many of them are in journals such as Inventiones, Annals or Duke. These are all fine journals, but it is idle to pretend that this is a level playing-field for high-quality research. I sent a paper to one of these three journals, and they rejected it without even sending it to referees. (The paper is one of my most highly cited, and is regarded in some quarters as one of the founding documents of the theory of mutually unbiased bases, an important topic in quantum information theory.)

One of our best mathematicians, Ian G. Macdonald, probably never applied for a grant during his entire career. But if young researchers now attempted to spend their time trying to do work as good as that of Macdonald, using their free time for research rather than grant applications, they would be in serious trouble. The effects of this are clear. When the research council ring-fenced a sum of money for grants to newly-appointed researchers, it very soon became the case that these grants were even harder to get than those in the main grant line, since every university required its new staff to apply for one.

A further problem is that only research grants that bring in overheads to the institution earn us brownie points. Many of my colleagues (and I) have directed programmes at the Isaac Newton Institute; these are huge complex affairs with large budgets, but none of the money goes to our institution. I am a PI (which in Australian means “partner investigator” while CI is “chief investigator”; here PI is “principal investigator” and CI is “co-investigator) on Graham Farr’s ARC grant; this is a highly prestigious grant, but I very much doubt whether our Vice-Principal even knows of its existence.

The situation for teaching is more complicated, since there never was an attempt to measure teaching “quality” until fairly recently. Now it is measured by student evaluations. As I explained once before, our new College-wide questionnaires do not ask the students whether they have learned anything, but do ask whether they have been helped to do well in the exam. That is now, officially, our job as teachers.

The word “education” means leading the learners to achieve more than perhaps they realised they could. They should end the process much richer, intellectually, than they began. This is impossible to measure; maybe the best surrogate is whether they can demonstrate on their exam scripts that they understand the subject. (Note that I did not say “do well on the exam”, though not even that is regarded as a measure of our teaching, merely that the students think we have helped them to do this.)

Teaching doesn’t make as much money as research, with one exception: if you can find a postgraduate course for which there is a demand, the sky is the limit. Our bosses think that they have found such a course in Financial Mathematics. So we will chase this chimera, and our mathematics MSc (in the past a training ground for some outstanding PhD students) will wither away. I discovered recently the problem here: many of these outstanding students went elsewhere for their PhDs, so we didn’t get their fees. Indeed, recently, a part-time Masters student (who had started work on a project and produced publishable work) was offered a PhD place in a good American university, so withdrew from our course. This will, naturally, be marked down as a failure for the course, since we only collected half the fees!

I hope that by discussing teaching and research I have made the point on income generation. I will not sully these pages by discussing league tables.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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8 Responses to The purpose of a university

  1. Laurent says:

    This is unfortunate, but true.
    We have entered a new age where engineering and technology is given priority over everything else. (over fundamental research, let alone teaching)
    While the Greek did not conquer with Fundamental Research, Engineering did not perpetuate the Roman Empire.
    History will probably have to repeat itself so that value finds its place once again.

  2. Allen Knutson says:

    One misses a lot of the picture focusing on just one department.

    I used to think “why are they picking on the mathematicians? we hardly cost anything, and we teach everybody calculus.” Whereas when a new bio prof is hired, they may be given $2M to build a lab.

    The difference is: within 5 years, that bio prof may be bringing in $.5M/year in grant overhead. Few mathematicians can touch that.

    As for where the money-chasing gets REALLY out of hand…
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/business/law-school-economics-job-market-weakens-tuition-rises.html?_r=1&ref=general&src=me&pagewanted=all

  3. I sympathise, but you have to be careful not to overstate the case. From time to need we need to use measurements of the quality of our work, if only to recognise particularly good/bad examples. In the example you gave of your highly-cited paper that did not make the top journal, you have been forced to use measurements yourself (ie you appealed to citation count) in order to justify the claim that it’s a good paper. I agree with the general point that measurements and rankings are over-used, and they undermine research freedom.

  4. Gordon Royle says:

    Hear, hear! Another great post hitting the nail on the head as usual.

    Here in Australia, we are also suffering the very same distortions, slightly less in some areas, but slightly more in others. Meaningless league tables (Shanghai Jiao-Tong anyone) dominate the university’s strategy causing a massive and systematic devaluation of teaching, and the sacking of staff who win teaching awards to divert resources to hiring “highly-cited researchers” who rarely deign to soil themselves in contact with undergraduates. Grant-getting dominates the “evaluation” of research to the extent that actually performing research occupies a smaller and smaller fraction of time devoted to “research”. Meanwhile the upper levels of administration proliferate, with an explosion of “pro-vice chancellors”, each armed with PAs, business-class travel and “executive” salaries, even though their main role appears to devolving most of their tasks onto the academics.

    Blah!

  5. I must say that the conjunction of Paul’s and Gordon’s comments is very telling.

    I deliberately used citation count, by the way, in a feeble attempt at irony. I know it is a good paper (and I think the people who cite it do too.) But this example was perhaps misplaced, since my target was people locally who think that only “their” mathematics is “real”. I should have concentrated my fire on the real target.

    And anyway, am I the only blogger who ever suffered a momentary loss of perspective?

  6. As we prepare for the so-called “Research Excellence Framework”, I heard the view expressed that, since the income that a department would get from a good and inclusive REF submission will be rather small, we would be better advised to concentrate on our league table position by being more selective in our submission. This is a policy which my department has always resisted on the grounds that it is divisive. But the fact that the only two alternatives considered are income and league table position seems to confirm my view.

  7. Jon Awbrey says:

    Charles S. Peirce on the definition of a University —

    An association of men for the purpose of study, which confers degrees which are acknowledged as valid throughout Christendom, is endowed, and is privileged by the state in order that the people may receive intellectual guidance, and that the theoretical problems which present themselves in the development of civilization may be resolved.

    The Century Dictionary, “University”, p. 6624.

    • Charlemagne, whose reforms led to the cathedral schools and indirectly to the European universities, said,

      Doubtless, good works are better than great knowledge, but without knowledge it is impossible to do good.

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