Balancing teaching and research

April 25, 1997

THE TIME is right to encourage national debate now about the balance to be struck between res-earch and teaching.

The new national Quality Assurance Agency urgently needs to grapple with definitions of what quality and standards actually mean in higher educational provision. Looking at the status of teaching and learning in relation to research is a good place to start.

As far back as 1989, the Polytechnic and Colleges Funding Council commissioned a committee of inquiry into teaching quality, chaired by Baroness Warnock.

The committee agreed that teaching must be responsive to student needs; and that the conditions necessary for good teaching "must be a priority at every level of the institution". No one definition of "good" teaching was considered appropriate, but we agreed that "teaching must be judged good by whether it contributes to the purposes of higher education - the life chances of the student".

The principal goal of universities and colleges is to promote student learning. And yet research interests still predominate, in many cases to the detriment of students' learning needs; primarily because research brings status, funding and enormous respect in the academic world. Teaching, by comparison, attracts at best a symbolic pat on the back ("quality approved" in the Higher Education Funding Council for England quality assessment exercise).

Equality of opportunity for good teaching in higher education is the key to parity of esteem with traditional subject research.

Equality means publicly rewarding scholarly enquiry into teaching and leaning processes and practices. It means elevating the status of academics working in institutions who systematically and deliberately set out to excel in providing their students with the best teaching and learning environment possible. It means continually emphasising that for many students high-level research ratings matter little in their immediate scheme of things.

Well-planned and structured learning, on the other hand, matters a great deal. There is an important balance to be struck.

Clearly, there can be no pig-headed reaction against genuine high-level research which is at the leading edge of "pushing back the frontiers of knowledge" in the subject domain. Many good research departments also provide excellent teaching and learning environments: as the results of the HEFCE quality assessment of educational provision show.

But we do need a re-awakening of the national debate about the aims and purposes of teaching, learning and assessment and research in higher education, and some clearer definitions of what is meant by quality and standards in those areas.

Clive Colling Former head of the educational development service, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Member of the Warnock committee of inquiry into teaching quality

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