Inquiring minds need more than just teaching

June 15, 2007

Undergraduate research can transform the sector, Alan Jenkins says in our series on new ideas for higher education.

"The scheme has given me an amazing opportunity to get inside researching," one student commented. "It was a great experience to work in a real research environment," added another. The response to Warwick University's undergraduate research scheme has been remarkably positive. It indicates the potential of such an approach to transform higher education in the UK.

To do that, support should be given to all UK institutions so that every undergraduate has the opportunity to learn through doing research.

Individual schemes are already a significant feature of higher education in the US. Within such programmes, students learn through inquiry and research-based learning. They are supported by academics and, at times, their work is centred on their supervisor's own projects. The evidence that this is having a positive impact on student academic development is growing.

Often the approach is used for a few able or rich undergraduates. However, in a number of US universities - most significantly the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where there is a well-established scheme - programmes have been expanded to "mainstream" student research.

For staff in institutions that receive little funding for "conventional" research, carrying it out with undergraduates is a way to maintain currency in their discipline and obtain research support. Funders such as the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are major supporters of undergraduate research in US higher education. Indeed, the NSF has recently allocated funding for this approach in community colleges.

In the UK, there is burgeoning interest. A number of undergraduate research programmes have followed the lead of Imperial College London, which founded its scheme, based on MIT, in 1980. Bioscience Horizons , an undergraduate research journal supported by a number of institutions, including Chester, Leeds and Nottingham, will soon help students publish their results.

At Manchester University, inquiry-based learning - which is in essence research-like learning - is being extended across all faculties. At Oxford Brookes and Gloucestershire universities, outline policies have been agreed, or are under discussion, to make the approach central to the curriculum for all or most students.

Gloucestershire also has a National Teacher Fellowship Project to support undergraduate research throughout the new-university sector. Furthermore, some of the research councils are backing a range of schemes, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's summer bursaries.

After 2008, a national fund should be established, taking moneys from teaching and research sources, to allow every UK institution to deliver curriculums that ensure all undergraduates learn through research. In this way, students will experience the complexities of academic knowledge, which most of us see as the central feature of the sector - what makes higher education higher. The Government has moved away from the idea of "teaching-only" universities. As Bill Rammell, Minister for Higher Education, said in 2006: "Understanding of the research process - asking the right questions in the right way, conducting experiments and collating and evaluating information - must be a key part of any undergraduate curriculum." Such an approach helps students develop the "research skills they will find useful in study and the work that follows through research-led teaching".

At present, however, UK higher education's focus on work that plays to the research assessment exercise is, in effect, moving many "research" staff away from much - if any - contact with undergraduates. Instead, they are often taught by staff separated from the world of academic inquiry.

Students are increasingly at arm's length from the understanding they could develop through involvement in research.

A national fund that focused on research in the undergraduate curriculum would support student intellectual development and help staff to develop knowledge currency in their discipline. Some institutions may decide to make such an approach central to their development of work-based learning or to their work with local communities.

The attraction to employers, the Government and the research councils of such a fund would be to persuade more able students to commit themselves to a research career. Drawing money from both teaching and research funding would help to break through the national and institutional firewalls that separate the two facets of academic life - walls that have so weakened the sector's effectiveness.J Funding should be large-scale. It should be across the whole sector and, unlike the current English "research-informed" teaching fund, should include support for those institutions that succeed financially in the 2008 RAE.

Lessons should be learnt from the Scottish system's current initiative to link teaching and research through developing graduate attributes. Money for RAE winners through this scheme should be less per student than for the many institutions that might be considered RAE losers. But it is vital that the fund is seen as an inclusive scheme for all students in all higher education institutions.

Alan Jenkins is a fellow of the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research at Oxford Brookes and Warwick universities. His website on adapting US undergraduate research to the UK is www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/research/cetl/ugresearch/

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