'Dubious' university research should be scrapped
A LEADING Scottish academic today criticised the vast amount of funding consumed by university research that is "often of dubious worth".
• John Haldane has slammed lecturers 'engaged in pursuit of their own interest' at the cost of teaching
John Haldane, a professor of philosophy at St Andrews University, said the growth of research at Scotland's universities might have become "a drag" on the main pursuit of educating students.
He said that, as budgets were tightened, "hard choices" would have to be made as to how universities spent their resources.
But university chiefs disputed his claims and defended Scotland's research record.
Writing in The Scotsman today, Prof Haldane, director of the Centre of Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St Andrews, said: "What is pursued under the heading of research, at any rate in the arts, humanities and social sciences, is often of dubious worth, being merely the accumulation of knowledge… without proper regard to the goal of integrated understanding.
"The growing mass of researchers may have become a drag upon, and even an obstacle to, the pursuit of the primary purpose of universities, namely education. It impedes the effort to put students first and consumes vast sums of public and private funding."
He went on: "As the situation in the public finances worsens, hard choices will have to be made.
"It is hardly plausible to insist that education should continue to enjoy levels of support, much of which is being consumed by researchers engaged in pursuit of their own interest without obvious benefits to the undergraduates for whose sake the universities were brought into being and who increasingly will have to pay for them."
However, Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, the umbrella group that represents principals, said research was a crucial part of higher education institutions.
He said: "The discovery of new knowledge, as well as the dissemination of knowledge, goes back to the founding principles of universities and is as important today as it was then.
"The quality of the research base in Scotland's universities is part of what makes them so attractive to students both at home and internationally. Students want to learn in an exciting, research-driven environment and be inspired by leaders in their fields.
"This week alone, there have been at least two research breakthroughs by our universities that will make a real difference to people's lives. If our universities aren't doing this, who is?"
Dr Ross Deuchar, president of the cross-university Scottish Educational Research Association (Sera) and a senior lecturer at Strathclyde University, said: "The basic function of a university is to produce new research.
"Sera are always encouraging impact through new research in terms of policy-making decisions and educational practice.
"We have to be conducting research in Scotland to improve practice – whether that's sociological research to improve social care or in other areas. It's not just research for research's sake."
Research is a valuable source of funding for universities. About 67.8 per cent of research funding comes from government, both from Holyrood, through the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), and Westminster. About half of that is competed for. Some 239 million was allocated by the SFC for research last year.
Funding is allocated on the basis of a rating given to universities in the Research Assessment Exercise, carried out jointly by the Scottish and English funding bodies. The value of research is also judged by a "peer review" process, with fellow academics ruling on its quality.
However, leading education figures agree research has begun to overshadow teaching, as cash-strapped universities try to generate additional funding.
Mary Senior, of lecturers' group the University and College Union, said: "Teaching has become undervalued, because you can gain extra money from research.
"Ironically, you actually get more money for teaching, but it is fixed and not variable."
However, she added: "Teaching and research are very important aspects of what universities do, and one should not be given more pre-eminence to the detriment of the other."
Dr Chris Holligan. a leading education researcher and a senior lecturer at West of Scotland University, defended the country's research record.
He said: "The last Research Assessment Exercise showed educational research in many university departments had a high percentage of publications rated as world-class and on a par with results of some of the best university departments in England.
"It also showed research in Scotland in social sciences ranks as world class – we have academics here who are graduates of Harvard and Yale and of a world-class standard."
Dr Nick McKerrell, a Glasgow Caledonian law lecturer who has conducted several research projects, defended Scotland's research output. He said: "The best research informs and underpins good teaching. What is a problem is when the two become separated as both teaching and the research then suffer."
But Craig Murray, who has just finished his term as rector of Dundee University, agreed with Prof Haldane. He said: "There is a huge financial incentive for the universities to ignore teaching in favour of research.
"And that's not the direction we want our universities to be going in. Of course research is terribly important and of course good researchers can be good teachers, but the whole system is far too skewed towards the quest for finance, and that pushes people into research not teaching."
Anecdotal reports indicate lecturers who can generate cash for their employers through research grants are more highly prized.
Green MSP Robin Harper, vice-convener of the cross parliamentary universities group and a former rector of both Aberdeen and Edinburgh, said one Edinburgh academic had been passed over for promotion, despite his superior teaching ability, because he did not focus on money-generating research.
Critics claim the system of allocating research funding favours older universities, while newer ones have to start from scratch with very small research bases.
The SFC has created a special Horizon Fund, in reaction to the Scottish Government's call for a focus on research areas that will benefit the economy.
The Scottish Government said: "One of the key strengths of our university sector is that our universities undertake both teaching and research. Research in our universities has a key role in helping our economy recover and grow from the current downturn."
40k to prove hangovers make you feel pretty bad
ACADEMICS at Professor John Haldane's own university, St Andrews, have some experience at conducting studies that could be described as having "dubious worth". These include:
• A study close to the hearts of all Barry White fans revealed that as girls became teenagers they found deeper voices more attractive, while younger girls found them intimidating.
Tamsin Saxton, a postdoctoral research fellow at the university's school of psychology, led the research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
• Glasgow Caledonian University researchers received 40,000 of public money to prove that having a hangover made you feel bad.
Academics were given the grant to research "whether having an alcohol-induced hangover impairs psychomotor and cognitive performance".
• Aberdeen University scientists' research in 2008 showed that women became less bitchy as they got older. They said those aged 50 and over were more likely to warm to other females because they no longer saw them as rivals.
Many were keen to befriend younger women or even mother them, the study also found.
• Stirling University researcher investigated the effects of tickling by conducting more than 200 hours of tests using a special apparatus on 34 pairs of exposed soles.
She asked their owners to record their response on a scale of zero (no sensation) to ten (hysterical, begging for mercy). She concluded that the right foot was more ticklish than the left.
• West of Scotland University was commissioned to predict rubbish disposal habits in households and when consumers would choose the "moral option" to reuse or recycle, not throw away.
• Read John Haldane's argument in full
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