In the last three decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students attending universities. But many commentators observe that the higher education system does nothing to challenge existing inequalities in society: poorer students go to less prestigious and less well-resourced universities and receive a lower quality education. This perception appears to be supported by university league tables.
The research proposed here is designed both to question the assumption that teaching and learning are self-evidently better in higher status universities; and, to develop a definition of the quality of teaching and learning which is fair and which takes account of the idea that a university education is for personal growth and the good of society, as well as for economic growth of the nation and prosperity for the individual.
The first objective: is to evaluate the comparative quality of teaching and learning in first degrees in sociology and allied subjects in four distinctively different universities.
The reasons for focusing on these subjects are that the team seeks to undertake an in-depth study of one discipline which is taught in all universities (unlike, for example, media studies or classics) and is not directly vocational (which allows an exploration of goals beyond the job market). Also, the applicants teach and research sociology or sociology of education and an understanding of the subjects under discussion should enhance the research process and access to lecturers and students will be easier.
The second objective: is to apply Bernstein's concepts to teaching and learning in university departments to ascertain how far it can throw light on the question of the quality of teaching and learning.
The sociologist Basil Bernstein produced a large body of influential work which suggests that education is distributed in society in ways which disadvantage the already disadvantaged. The work has been widely applied in schools. By way of a large set of data interviews with lecturers and students, case-studies, a survey, video-tapes of teaching, evaluation of student work and analysis of documents, the research team will attempt to capture the complexities of the interactions between students' lives and backgrounds; the degrees that they study; and the conditions in the universities in which they study.
The final objective: is to generate debate among students, higher education teachers and managers, policy makers and quality assurance agencies.
Many and varied practical applications will flow from clarification about what counts as a good university education in different institutional settings; expansion of ideas about how to measure it in ways that do not disadvantage institutions or individual students; and, the development of a concept of teaching which does justice to all students.