Don't let politicians drive a wedge between teaching and research
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Is your university research-led or teaching-led? The rhetoric of some politicians and commentators around the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef) seems to suggest that all institutions are emphatically one or the other, with the research-led group guilty of neglecting students’ rightful demands for top-quality teaching.
It is not that simple in reality, of course. But there is potential for the relationship between research and teaching to become more positive and fruitful, rather than one of balancing competing interests.
It is true that there is considerable variation in the volume of research that is conducted at different institutions, and some of those with the biggest outputs do describe themselves as being research-led or research-intensive.
Universities and science minister Jo Johnson has voiced concern that such focus on research means too little attention is paid to teaching. He hopes that the Tef will redress this, especially if higher fees can be used as an incentive to provide excellent teaching.
But Gordon Marsden, the new shadow minister for higher education, warned last week that the Tef could bring about “an apartheid” between universities that teach and universities that research – implying that if your institution is not already one or the other, it will be once the Tef is in place.
This kind of either/or debate only reinforces the misconception that there is a barrier separating research and teaching; that academics are divided and forced on to distinct career paths, to the detriment of their students.
In fact, good universities have always recognised that excellent teaching is supported and informed by excellent research – the two go hand in hand. And many institutions are now looking for ways to further strengthen the links between the two.
So what does that mean in practice? In a nutshell, it is about ensuring that the best researchers are also excellent and highly motivated teachers, ready to impart their knowledge and passion. It also means helping students to become researchers, both in an academic sense and in a way that will help them to make an impact in their professional lives.
At Leicester, we have always supported excellent teachers. We run our own Distinguished Teaching Fellowship and in 2014 we were the only university to win three National Teaching Fellowships from the Higher Education Academy. From next year, as part of what we are calling a “Fabulous First Year”, we will ensure that all first-year students (as well as those in later years) have access to and are taught by some of our leading researchers.
Universities should ensure that a research experience features in all programmes, so that students are undertaking critical enquiries that will enhance their understanding, lead them to new realms of discovery, and help them to develop skills that they will be able to use in their careers or further study.
An emphasis on employability is just as important, but there is no conflict between this and research-inspired teaching. Professional practice in the workplace is often made up of a series of research projects, and the skills students gain from undertaking research – such as knowing where to look for information; assessing evidence; building a case; understanding and solving problems; thinking laterally; and managing their time and energy – will be of great value to any employer. As these traits are transferable, they are also a great asset to any graduate.
The creative relationship between research and teaching will be further enhanced at Leicester as we introduce new flexible interdisciplinary degrees to sit alongside and benefit from a greater emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Finding solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges requires researchers from a range of disciplines to work together. Business and industry also value individuals who have experience of working effectively in an interdisciplinary team. Universities can develop graduates with that mindset by offering interdisciplinary degrees taught by interdisciplinary researchers.
The fear that a tension between research and teaching in higher education will weaken one or other (usually teaching) is nothing new. But the Tef must not be allowed to divide institutions even further into research-led or teaching-led categories. Instead, it should reward universities that can show they are using their research strengths to enhance their teaching, taking an approach to pedagogy that values the influence of world-class research.