Rebalancing research and teaching within universities: rethinking recognition and reward

Adrian Lam looks at what changes to recognition and reward in higher education would help academics better balance a focus on research with need for quality teaching

Adrian Man-Ho Lam's avatar
The University of Hong Kong
12 May 2022
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Too many higher education institutions prioritise research over teaching, particularly the most prestigious research-intensive universities. Yet the purpose of a university should be a balanced combination of knowledge creation and education. Below are four viable approaches for universities to rebalance efforts towards research and teaching, enhancing the quality of both:

1. Recognition of teaching through explicit institutional benchmarks

Larger structural incentives in higher education focus on outstanding research, meaning teaching is too often viewed as an afterthought. While research is globally celebrated through highly visible awards and initiatives, teaching recognition is generally confined to individual institutions. And while teaching quality is discussed as a matter of formality, its inclusion in university goals and official documents is often in the form of facile, generic slogans that carry very little meaning.

It is crucial to agree set measures to define high-quality teaching within and across institutions. Teaching excellence needs to be unpacked with explicit and concrete benchmarks, alongside detailed illustrations and examples, to support professional development of staff. Setting clear targets allows teaching performances and quality to be tracked and assessed, which will appeal to metric- and audit-driven institutions. It helps resolve difficulties in comparative assessment of teaching across disciplines, subjects and teaching styles, especially when students possess diverse needs and qualities.

2. Prioritisation of teaching in promotion and tenure

It is not always clear to academics what their institutions expect from them in terms of teaching and learning outcomes. Teaching and learning is usually mentioned in recruitment and promotion criteria but in the guise of a discrete activity that supplements research, which does nothing to bust the myth that teaching is less important. It sends a message to busy academics that teaching should not be prioritised. Teaching quality must be given much more emphasis in tenure and promotion opportunities for academics. Clear incentives will increase academics’ motivation to focus on teaching efforts.

3. Transformation of rewarding systems and practices

Teaching is further pushed to the margins by the allocation of grants and research funding by accreditation bodies and governments, which put pressure on academics to maintain top research ratings or risk losing out to competitors. Publication pressure encourages academics to minimise teaching in order to focus on publishing more of the articles or research papers that build their profiles and careers.

Research assessments and funding applications usually require academics to demonstrate an original and significant contribution of their projects to knowledge. Funding is primarily based on research outcomes, not learning outcomes. Existing reward systems should take steps to recognise effective integration of teaching and research and academics should be better rewarded if their teaching is shown to be based on or led by research.

4. Encouraging seamless integration of teaching and research

Academics should be further encouraged to link their teaching and research efforts. When applying for posts within universities, they should be asked to show how their research work impacts their teaching delivery, curriculum development, and other forms of engagement. This moves the focus away from research output as the marker of success and towards the research process and how academics are engaging with this across all aspects of their job, even if they are not publishing constantly.

Institutions should make more effort to evaluate academics based on the holistic range of activities they do day-to-day within the university, rather than using preconceived standards such as research metrics for oversight and accountability. This would enable academics to focus on the quality of daily work – whether teaching, research, supervising, managing diversity and inclusion initiatives or anything else – rather than upon static numbers on a checklist. This, in turn, facilitates potential synergies between teaching and research, by giving academics space to figure out effective ways to link their work. Academics who successfully integrate teaching and research should be rewarded and showcased as exemplary practitioners contributing to the improvement of institutional practices.

Teaching and research both work towards a shared goal of increasing, exploiting and defending knowledge. Therefore, we need to rethink our priorities to break down the long-standing divide between these two pillars of higher education.

Adrian Man-Ho Lam is a course tutor researching and teaching the interdisciplinary common core curriculum at the University of Hong Kong.

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