Let’s keep teaching and research together

Academics’ passion for research should feed into the ideal higher education experience, says Gill Evans

九月 9, 2022
Two hands reach for each other, symbolising teaching and learning
Source: iStock

Separate contracts for teaching and research are a recent trend in UK universities. But the growing band of “teaching-only” academics is already prompting calls for their careers to be better supported by universities. An article published earlier this week in Times Higher Education called for such academics to be given their own concordat, like that already developed for “research-only” academics on fixed-term contracts.

It might be better to turn the clock back – but not too far. When universities began, teaching was all they did. Even the first “doctorates” of Oxford and Cambridge were achieved solely through taught courses. Mainstream research activity arrived in UK academia only during the 19th century, first with the inclusion of the natural sciences in a widening syllabus, then for the humanities, too. And it was not until the end of that century that the medieval “doctorates” began to be awarded for published original work.

The early 20th century saw DPhils (Oxford) and PhDs (Cambridge) introduced as a lower form of research doctorate, which could be achieved by a young scholar on the basis of a research thesis. Even then, it was a generation or two before typical academic jobs involved both teaching and research and a doctorate was regarded as a normal expectation for applicants (although that is still not a firm requirement).

By the 1990s, the allocation of infrastructure funding for research was becoming selective. Institutions began competing for their share through a series of iterations of the Research Assessment Exercise, now the Research Excellence Framework. That led to manoeuvring by universities to improve their chances as the rules evolved about which academic staff and what research could be submitted.

The move in the 2021 REF to require submission of all staff with a “significant responsibility” for research is now encouraging the forceful moving of teaching-and-research staff to teaching-only contracts. These developments have not been driven by academic considerations, although the Teaching Excellence Framework now seeks to reward a university’s performance in teaching.

Since 2004, it has been possible for a provider in England and Wales (but not elsewhere in the UK) to be granted degree-awarding powers only for taught degrees. An unresolved question explored by the Augur report of 2019 was what distinguishes “higher” from the “further” education, in which research has still no real foothold. Courses at levels 4 and 5 count as “higher”, although level 6 is needed for a degree in England.

The boundaries have become even more blurred by the fact that universities now offer degree apprenticeships. On 1 September, it was announced that Euan Blair’s apprenticeship-based company Multiverse had been given taught degree-awarding powers.

If the role of research in higher education has been far from settled, does it matter if it is now increasingly separated from teaching? After all, it is true that among teaching-and-research academics, some are more drawn to the teaching and some to the research. But those moving to teaching-only contracts are not noticeably doing so out of a strong sense of vocation. In several universities, notably Leicester, there has been vigorous protest.

The University of Cambridge recently created a “Teaching and Scholarship career path”, to be pursued when it is “in the best interests of the individual” or for new appointments “in the strategic and operational interests” of the department or faculty.

It was promised that “there will be no compulsion to change to the new contract”, and it was initially promised that it would be possible to change either way between the two contracts. However, the regulations were soon amended to prevent moves from teaching and scholarship to teaching and research. That has prompted resistance – particularly as, while “scholarship” is to be confined to “pedagogical research”, those in these teaching-and-scholarship posts will not be entitled to sabbatical leave for research purposes.

It was also belatedly realised that it might be wise to include a member with “specific expertise in teaching-focused academic practice” on any committee deciding on a move to a teaching-only contract since there had been no definition of the criteria of teaching excellence.

But it might be wiser still to keep such moves to an absolute minimum. It is clear that most “research-active” academics are strongly motivated in the pursuit of knowledge. Witness scientists’ resistance to retirement from the university posts on which their grants depend. The University of Oxford’s introduction of an “employer-justified retirement age” designed to force academics to retire has prompted angry resistance, litigation and two reviews so far over its 10 years of operation.

Surely this passion for research should feed into the ideal student experience? Surely teaching should preferably be delivered in an encounter with minds actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge? A PhD student quickly learns that research involves discovering what the question is, but it should be made apparent to the undergraduate, too, that learning is not merely a matter of mastering existing knowledge but requires the questioning and testing of received wisdom.

Such a call to keep teaching and research together may seem to leave “teaching-only” institutions and their students disadvantaged. But perhaps it also calls for better definition of what constitutes “higher” education.

G. R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.



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