Is teaching in research universities actually research-led?

Study into the experiences of universities’ top teaching faculty is revealing about the real priorities, says Holly Else

December 22, 2016
University teaching
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That research-intensive universities value research over teaching is probably not news to many. The clue is in the name given to such a category of institution.

But by definition, a research-intensive university is also one where teaching is supposed to be led by research, and in the current era of university staffing where an academic’s work is tightly defined by the terms of his or her contract – which increasingly may be research-only or teaching-only – there is a problem.

Of course there are some academics who hold contracts that allow both research and teaching. But the evidence suggests that the use of teaching-only contracts is on the rise, particularly for those who work part-time.

As Abel Nyamapfene, a senior teaching fellow at University College London, points out, those on teaching-only contracts do not have the time to research, nor is it part of their job description.

So how can an academic who does no research teach in a way that is led by research? It is a question that research-intensive universities that employ staff on binary research-only or teaching-only contracts have not addressed adequately.

And what about their students? Are those who choose a research-intensive university, presumably for its research credentials, getting a bum deal if their teachers are not researchers?

Dorene Ross, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, who conducted the research studying the views of top lecturers, thinks not, although she concedes that undergraduates at research-intensive universities are unlikely to be taught by faculty who are highly engaged in research.

She said that undergraduates are most likely picking a research-intensive institution because it is highly ranked in league tables or has a strong reputation – both of which, ironically, tend to reflect the work of the university’s research faculty, not necessarily its teachers.

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