Education & Family

Universities too focused on research, says Willetts

Scientists using electron microscope at Newcastle University
Image caption Scientists have strongly opposed cuts to research

Science Minister David Willetts has said the research-teaching balance has "gone wrong" in universities, after defending cuts to science research.

Addressing vice chancellors, he said he was shocked by how little teaching was valued in lecturers' promotions.

Universities that relegated the importance of teaching risked "losing sight" of their mission, he said.

Earlier, he defended plans unveiled on Wednesday to "raise the bar" on science research funded by the taxpayer.

On Thursday, during a speech on the future of higher education, Mr Willetts said: "It remains hard to shift the impression that what really counts in higher education is research. This needs to change."

He told the Universities UK annual conference he had found a report "shocking" that suggested only one in 10 senior promotions in top universities was influenced by teaching.

Mr Willetts said the focus in research was due to the incentives created by successive governments' policies.

"We have strengthened the incentives for everyone to carry out research with no change in the regime for teaching," he said.

Science cuts row

His comments come a day after Business Secretary Vince Cable said research funding should "screen out mediocrity" in the projects backed by the taxpayer.

Universities and scientists reacted angrily to his assertion that only research that was commercially useful or academically outstanding should be funded.

In defence of the policy, Mr Willetts told the BBC's Today programme public spending was "running way ahead of what we can afford" and taxpayers should only fund the highest quality research.

Universities are expecting budget cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review scheduled for October.

But scientific and academic leaders say funding less research would threaten the UK's status as a world leader in science.

Former chief executive of the British Medical Research Council Professor Colin Blakemore questioned how research quality would be defined.

"Some of it doesn't produce the results that were expected. That is the nature of research. Sometimes it doesn't work," he told the BBC.

Mr Willetts said one way the government could focus spending would be to concentrate on research that scored the highest ratings in assessments by the UK funding councils.

Prof Blakemore said scientific research was crucial to the future of the UK's economy.

"Britain is a small country with declining resources - where do we survive from? Our only hope is innovation and to produce innovation we have to produce the basis of innovation, in research."

The government spends £4.3bn a year on scientific research.

Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said on Wednesday that cutting science funding would be a false economy.

"The question should not be can we afford the investment - it should be can we afford the cuts."

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