White Paper

In the last issue the Vice-Chancellor responded to the government's White Paper on Higher Education. Here some other figures from across the University share their thoughts on this critical document.

White Paper and HEFCE Funding Proposals: Bad for Medicine

It might have been suspected that the Head of a research-intensive Clinical School consistently ranked amongst the highest-scoring in past RAE's (and top in the latest) might welcome proposals aimed at strengthening the international competitiveness of the best UK universities. However whatever Cambridge stands to gain will be more than offset by national damage caused by the proposals to remove or reduce research funding from 3a and 4-rated units of assessment.

Medical schools have already been disadvantaged by reduction in the government funds to support the research funded by the medical charities (QR), and it seems certain that the linkage of teaching income to social deprivation will constitute a further cut (because of the preponderance of medical students entering from higher-earning backgrounds).

Clinical academics play a major role in NHS service-development and much excellent research is done in partnership with the NHS supported by medical charities in 3a and 4-rated units of assessment. Cambridge badly needs more government support to more fully realise its potential in medicine, but academic medicine in Cambridge also depends critically on the nation-wide health of the discipline. It serves nobody to educate medical students in research-free zones! Many of the current senior academic staff in Cambridge became orientated towards teaching and research in medical schools threatened by the latest proposals.

Sir Keith Peters
Regius Professor of Physic,
Head of the School of Clinical Medicine

A view from the Colleges

These are challenging times for the University. The White Paper brings this into focus. A moment to reflect on our purpose and values - and to take pride.

Cambridge is not there, nor is the College system, just because it is there. Between them these institutions fulfil a vital national educational and community function. This is in a fundamental sense a society of equals - intellectual colleagues; people intensely curious about life, the natural world and discovery. The benchmark is excellence. The contribution of the Cambridge Greats, from Newton to Clerk Maxwell and beyond, cannot be usefully analysed as a matter of social origin: they were individuals blessed with brains and imagination. We are and must remain a society open to the talents.

Nor is Cambridge an island. Having served most of my life abroad I am struck by its extraordinary attractive power for scholars and students from across the world. My own College is no exception. The international dimension benefits Cambridge enormously. But beyond that it carries the message that objectivity, creativity, the development of new good things for the human race, are regions where no one has a monopoly.

You can see that I am proud of Cambridge. I personally find much that is good in the White Paper. But I am aware of strong concern among Junior Members that future levels of debt will deter good applicants. And we need to speak up for our record and values. We are a place of strong teaching as well as research. The College system itself is in permanent evolution - determined in particular to admit students of the highest potential irrespective of origin and circumstances. The Colleges take pride in the care with which admissions tests and interviews are conducted and they are making great efforts to increase bursary provision yet further. The system has to be fair, of course, and seen to be fair. No one I know contests that.

I have nieces and nephews who went to other, larger campuses where essays are not always marked. Students from overseas flock to this one precisely to escape impersonality. The College system, take it for all in all, is a magnificent machine for delivering high class teaching along with social support and community life. It mixes Cambridge's research and teaching capability to great effect. It mixes the ages and the talents. It continues to improve and deserves defending.

Sir John Boyd
Master of Churchill College

Union concerns

The White Paper has no proposals for an across the board pay rise for all academic and academic-related staff who over the last 20 years have seen the number of students they support through the system double whilst an ever-decreasing unit of resource per student has made the job ever more burdensome. This represents an increase in productivity that is remarkable by any standards. At the same time they have seen constant erosion in their salaries, acknowledged by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons in January 2003 as being 40 per cent and in urgent need of correction. Performance related pay, market supplements and extra money for recruitment and retention will not address this key omission.

Nothing in the White Paper recognises the important role played by academic-related and support staff in delivering higher education to this ever increasing group of 18 to 30 year olds. Reading the White Paper, one could be forgiven for imagining that higher education is the exclusive domain of teaching and research staff.

There is a failure to recognise the essential link between teaching, research and scholarship as the essence of higher education, as shown by the attempt
to produce teaching-only universities. Whilst this is not an issue for Cambridge, it is probably the most serious threat to the concept of a university for most higher education institutions.

We note with dismay the immensely bureaucratic procedures that the White Paper implies, such as centres of teaching excellence, student assessments, together with the failure of the White Paper to address the requirements of the government's 'Better Regulation Task Force' by producing an impact assessment to accompany the White Paper.

Although we know that equal opportunities - or rather lack of them - are a major issue in higher education, the White Paper does not even pay lip service to redressing the inequalities experienced by women and ethnic minority staff in our universities.

Joseph Gordon
President of the Cambridge Branch of the Association of University Teachers

Third-stream activities

The government is particularly interested in the benefits universities confer on society, which, as they see it, justify public funding. Both HEFCE, and the government ministries that push these agendas, have come to understand that this issue is very complex indeed. The several great universities in the UK, as mature social organisms, are interwoven into society in manifold, usually mutually beneficial, ways. The rich and enduring benefits society anticipates from leading universities include, but also extend way beyond, the territories of economic impact.

It seems to me that it is by the sophistication, and the significance, of its interdependencies with wider society, that the distinctiveness of a university is expressed. These transactions impart a large part of a University's character and meaning.

I welcome this new policy emphasis warmly, for two main reasons. First, it may go some way to repair the distortions caused by funding driven, over the last decade, by narrow metrics in research and teaching (hence "third stream"). Second, while we have much to be proud of in Cambridge, there is clearly room to improve: for example, services to academics and to external organisations to enhance the scope and depth of mutually beneficial engagement; the university's capability in knowledge transfer and commercialisation; and more.

Dr Chris Padfield
Director of Corporate Liaison Office

Monitoring standards

Cambridge has done extremely well in the Research Assessment Exercise, and has attracted large amounts of additional funding. The White Paper now suggests that new resources and additional money for pay will be available for 'strength in teaching', provided that institutions have 'human resources strategies' to train and reward good teachers. National standards of teaching will be laid down by a new teaching quality academy, and must be reached by all new teachers from 2006.

The common Cambridge response that 'strength in teaching' comes from brilliant lectures by leading researchers, supported by supervisions in the colleges allowing close attention to individual need, is threatened by a much more formal system of monitoring and accreditation. The university has started to consider the implications, in particular as part of the new probationary scheme to be introduced with the abolition of assistant lectureships. Clearly, there will be pressures on our time and energies on top of the demands of the Research Assessment Exercise; and in many cases, the best teachers are those who convey the excitement of fresh research. The trick is to avoid overly prescriptive and intrusive training, and to concentrate on useful advice on conveying the excitement of our ideas.

The White Paper also makes proposals for student appraisal which will have serious implications for the existing Tripos. Student progress, it seems, will be recorded through transcripts and 'personal development portfolios', so that 'learners' can reflect on their achievements as well as explaining them more accurately to 'stakeholders'. Further, 'value added' will be measured, showing the distance travelled by the student from entry to exit. Nothing has been agreed, and HEFCE is to review the appropriate methods.

More immediately, the opinion of students on teaching quality will be available from the autumn of 2003 in a national survey, with the expectation that student demand will drive up quality. I can see many hours of meetings stretching ahead - relieved by the opportunity to reflect on the changing political language of modern Britain.

Professor Martin Daunton
Chair of the History Faculty and of the Staff Development Committee

Consideration of the White Paper ends on 30 April. The University Council will publish the response to government in the Reporter in May.