Intellect thrives on diet rich in research

January 3, 2003

Ominous noises coming from the government are suggesting that the teaching and research link should be severed. That would be a big mistake, says Alan Jenkins.

The 1963 Robbins report greeted an earlier expansion of higher education by stating that the sector's central feature was "the element of partnership of teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding". The 1997 Dearing report confirmed the distinctiveness of higher education by endorsing "the important role of research and scholarship in informing and enhancing teaching" and by rejecting the idea that "some institutions should be teaching-only institutions".

The link between teaching and research is even more important now than in a "golden age" of small class sizes, selective entry and well-funded universities. The educationist Ron Barnett has argued that students now have to understand and cope with a world of "supercomplexity". An understanding of research processes gives them the insight and ability to understand that complexity. Sir Howard Newby, in setting out the Higher Education Funding Council for England's strategic view of higher education, emphasised the "purposes of higher education in terms of the enlightenment it brings in spreading civilised values". Barbara Zamorski's research on the relationship between teaching and research at the University of East Anglia revealed that "students value highly the experience of studying in a research-rich environment". Our research at Oxford Brookes University concurs, particularly for postgraduate students.

The classic connections between students and research are vital for the new "knowledge economy". Newby pointed to universities being structurally part of the "productive sector", "the engine room of the knowledge-based economy". In the new world of work, it is as important for graduates to understand how knowledge is created, managed and implemented as it is for them to possess that knowledge in the first place. Students' research skills are therefore central to higher education, albeit in a different form from the classic "academic apprentice" model. The government's target of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds entering higher education comes from employers' predictions of the demand for graduate knowledge and skills. As education secretary Charles Clarke states in his discussion paper Issues for Higher Education : "In today's globally competitive world, the government needs more people educated to a higher standard than ever before."

However, many pressures threaten the classic connections between student learning and research. Governments see research - or the products of research - as central to economic growth. Clarke, noting that the "Russell Group universities get 63 per cent of the (research assessment exercise) funding", asks whether research should be further concentrated, enabling "more of the best researchers to focus on research" with some institutions "specialising in teaching". Many of us would question why research policy should be so focused on "wealth creation" and would want it to also focus on knowledge distribution and empowerment. However, we have to recognise that much scientific research needs heavy expenditure and that many feel that doctoral training should be concentrated in certain universities.

Universities have done much to sever the links between teaching and research. As the RAE is, in effect, the only game in town, a common institutional strategy is to concentrate on research, neglect teaching and pay lip-service to the teaching-research nexus. Ian McNay's research for Hefce showed "a gradual separation, structurally, of research from teaching", with department heads reporting that "good researchers spend less time teachingI and more undergraduate teaching is done by part-timers and postgraduates".

Such pressures are international. In the US, the influential 1998 Boyer commission reported: "Research universities have too often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate populationsI thousands of students graduate without ever seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research."

In the UK, the current review of research and the government's rethinking of higher education strategy provide an opportunity to reshape the nexus to meet the needs of a more diverse mass system. In achieving that aim, we need to affirm that an understanding of research and, to an extent, the ability to do research are central to higher education. The key word is "higher". We need to reach out to the many who are excluded from higher education, but we do them no service by offering them a restricted diet of key skills and codified knowledge.

To ensure that students gain an understanding forged through research, we need to move away from the classic model of a professor surrounded by a small pack of disciples. Moreover, institutions should not try to push more staff to become "research active". That cannot be achieved given predicted resources. Such research pressures are paradoxically shattering teaching-research links. Instead, the focus of a revitalised nexus should be on developing students' research abilities through their courses.

What then becomes central is teaching staff's professional knowledge of how to design courses through knowledge of current research in their disciplines. And probably even more critical is ensuring that many more staff are promoted by their institutions for providing leadership in teaching. This focus on teaching is no less important in the research-elite institutions. Students there should experience the potential benefits of studying in a research-rich environment. Research funding there should be conditional on producing high-level textbooks and e-learning for use throughout the sector. Such institutions need to look to international experience - to the many US research universities that have developed special year-one inquiry-based programmes and research-based learning opportunities in advanced courses.

It is essential, too, that institutions and departments outside the research elite obtain research funding. National research policy should ensure that they are funded for research that is tightly linked to the courses they provide. In the same way, research funding should recognise the growing number of taught postgraduate courses that meet the needs of professionals in the regional workforce. We have research evidence that quality teaching at postgraduate level is linked to a sound research base. This will require significant changes, in particular the breaking-down of the institutional firewalls between research and teaching strategies.

Here again, US experience is invaluable in shaping national policy. Major research-funding organisations such as the National Science Foundation and the Council on Undergraduate Research target support at institutions outside the research elite to promote undergraduate involvement in staff-led research projects. In addition, some US liberal arts and science institutions are nationally and internationally renowned for focusing on teaching supported by high-level scholars.

It is possible and desirable to reshape the teaching-research nexus to meet the strategic goals of the government and the legitimate research aspirations of institutions. To focus research policy on an elite would, in effect, weaken higher education and threaten the government's strategic goals. My fear is that the government's preoccupation with world-class research, and leadership in many institutions that sees prestige and wealth only in a narrow RAE-focused research, will impoverish UK higher education. Let us hope that Clarke's strategy paper and the review of the RAE seize the opportunities for a reshaped teaching-research nexus.

Alan Jenkins is an educational developer and researcher at the Westminster Institute of Oxford Brookes University and co-author of Reshaping Teaching in Higher Education : Linking Teaching with Research , published by Kogan Page/Staff and Educational Development Association on January 3. He is also director of an LTSN/Generic Centre project "Linking teaching and research in the disciplines".

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