teaching-versus-research

Research and teaching – unite or divide?

I always know I’ll be rewarded when I start to read one of David Morris’ longer, detailed, well-argued pieces for Wonkhe. I like the way he’s willing to take a swipe at some uninterrogated assumptions in higher education. So perhaps he’ll understand if I reply in the same vein.

The piece is raising the old question of whether teaching and research must necessarily take place in the same institution. Are they mutually reinforcing, and is it necessary for those teaching undergraduates to be engaged in research? Morris cites some studies which suggest the answer is no, on both counts. There is a suggestion that universities might operate a Glass-Steagal approach and separate the functions, and presumably distribute staff according to their dispositions. It is a popular call at the moment in the wonkoshphere, and Morris cites a 2004 paper which endorses it. Was it ever published in a journal and peer-reviewed? The link takes me to a conference paper.

Firstly, let’s dispel some of the assumptions. Let’s leave aside unresolved questions of whether the REF can be said to measure research quality, or the NSS measure teaching quality. Not all teaching in HE is research led and some of it doesn’t need to be. If you are teaching an undergraduate 100 or sometimes 200 level Linguistics or Biochemistry courses, the content is likely to be pretty similar from one department to another. The expectation is that anyone suitably qualified in Linguistics or Biochemistry would be able to turn their hand to these. Research-led teaching tends to occupy more specialized 300 (UG Level 6) courses.

Secondly, skim through any student course evaluations and you will find that the one thing they appreciate in a lecturer is enthusiasm. I can still remember the classes taught by the most research-active lecturer when I was a student. She would often arrive breathless from the lab, but with a story to tell about the latest experiment. You won’t be surprised to find that academics impart their own specialist subject with most enthusiasm. In turn, it is surprising what insights you pick up from students when teaching on your research area and supervising their projects and dissertations. Universities aim to ensure that students have the opportunity to engage in research during the course of their studies, because this skill above all is commensurate with ‘graduateness’. How can this be taught except by trained researchers?

Thirdly, things have moved on since Hattie and Marsh were writing in 2004. External and internal audits in universities have insisted on subjects demonstrating that teaching and research are linked. Why would QAA demand this if there were no symbiotic links? Perhaps the most obvious justification for the linkage is curriculum development. The kind of degrees which are likely to be appropriated by ‘alternative providers’ are professional courses which are taught by practitioners, and not necessarily those advancing new developments in the subject. Sometimes the curriculum is set by those professional bodies. For the rest of academia, we would be shocked if we visited our old university department and found the same curriculum in place that we followed 20 or 30 years ago. How did the new material get there if not informed by recent research?

Call me old school, but honestly, we have to decide whether we want universities or we don’t. Morris mocks the panicked response that HE without research means “we might as well be in a further education college”. That shudder reflects not primarily status anxiety , but a recognition that FE is hardly a sector with a shining reputation. It is underfunded and tarnished with poor staff retention, poor work conditions, short-term contracts, uncertainty of mission and patchy outcomes – with private providers circling the remains. The higher education sector, by contrast, has good records of retention and the vast majority who enter achieve an honours degree. The satisfaction rates are excellent. Can we really afford as a nation to convert a large part of the successful sector into replicas of the failing one?

Nobody ever claimed that each and every lecturer was the embodiment of the academic holy trinity of teaching, research and scholarship, but we all benefit by working in an environment where research takes place. No, not all good researchers will be good teachers, but most of them are at least competent. On the other hand, the inevitable outcome of dividing teaching from research would not resemble banking so much as hydraulic fracking, only with more protest and worse pollution of the surroundings.

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