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Universities putting research before teaching, says minister

David Willetts says higher education system lopsided, as survey shows students receiving less feedback than 50 years ago

Universities need a "cultural change" towards teaching, the universities minister, David Willetts, has argued, as a survey of UK undergraduates showed they were being set less work and received notably less tutor feedback than did their peers 50 years ago.

Willetts, writing in a pamphlet published to mark the anniversary of the 1963 report by the academic Lord Robbins that paved the way for a significant expansion in university education, says the higher education system has become "so lopsided away from teaching" that universities need to fundamentally rethink their role and priorities.

The Conservative minister's treatise, Robbins Revisited, published by the Social Market Foundation thinktank, notes a significant shift in emphasis away from teaching in favour of research, particularly in the older institutions. Willetts cites figures showing that in 1963 academics devoted 55% of their time on average to teaching and 45% to research.

For pre-Robbins universities the split is now 40% to 60%, and for institutions created between 1963 and the next huge expansion in universities in 1992 the ratio is 43% to 57%.

In contrast, Willetts notes, the former polytechnics and FE colleges that were made universities after 1992 are "heavily focused on teaching", with a 89% to 11% split.

Willetts argues that Robbins' vision was one in which research and teaching complemented each other, but that this idea has been lost. "Looking back we will wonder how the higher education system was ever allowed to become so lopsided away from teaching."

A study of more than 17,000 UK undergraduates commissioned by the consumer group Which? found a reduction in the amount of contact time students have with lecturers and the changing nature of feedback about work.

Students had on average 14 hours and 48 minutes of contact time a week in 1963, against 13 hours 42 minutes in 2012. Perhaps more significantly, while almost two-thirds of the 1963 cohort received oral feedback on work as well as written comments, now 77% of current students get just a grade and written comment.

The study also showed that 2012 students were obliged on average to submit one piece of written work a fortnight, as against one a week for those in 1963.

While some critics argue that the post-Robbins and, particularly, post-1992 expansion of universities has helped bring about this situation, in his pamphlet Willetts explicitly argues for greater numbers of students still, suggesting that within 20 or so years student numbers could rise by another 25%.