Logic of the rhetoric

December 8, 1995

Roger Brown questions the link between research and teaching. Is research a necessary, integral, part of higher education? If it is, what policies should we pursue to promote its beneficial interaction with other academic activities?

A classic statement of the benefits of research for teaching is contained in the Robbins report of the 1960s. For the Robbins committee the presence of research "gave intellectual and spiritual vitality to work at all levels in institutions where it is pursued".

Moreover, there was a reciprocal benefit to those engaged in research from being members of an institution where learning was not only advanced but communicated. The notion that research and teaching are necessarily interlinked is fundamental to the present definition of a university in this country and indeed, very largely, internationally.

Recent research suggests, however, that there is little empirical evidence to support the view that quality in research is necessary for quality in teaching. But there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that research, and in particular the funding of research on the basis of judgements reached through the research assessment exercise, is having a negative impact on teaching and learning and especially innovation in teaching.

This includes the evidence of the Higher Education Quality Council's quality audit. In fact national policy points in different and opposite directions. For an institution to obtain a university title it needs the full range of degree-awarding powers, which in turn requires a minimum capability in research. Yet the effect, if not the aim, of funding policies is to concentrate research resources of any significance in a limited number of departments and institutions.

The next research assessment exercise is nearly upon us. If this evidence is to be taken seriously, and we are still intent on improving teaching and learning, we may have to consider various options.

One is to continue with the present set of assumptions about the necessary link between research and teaching but be prepared to look more closely at the allocation of resources, or the access to resources, between institutions, and the principles on which it is based.

However this may only be supportable if we assume the impacts of research on other institutional functions are negligible or unimportant. Everyone agrees that we need a variety of institutional, and departmental, missions. Yet the present system appears to prioritise one particular kind of activity - discipline-based, discovery research - at all levels.

A second scenario is to break the link and contemplate the possibility of teaching only institutions and research institutes: the "R" (research), "T" (teaching) and "X" (both) catagories of the 1980s all over again. But if this is to be done by design, rather than drift, a number of questions need to be faced. Who would make the decisions, and what criteria would they use?

What would be the position of staff in teaching-only institutions who wished to conduct research? Or that of students who wished to be taught only by staff engaged in research? How would teaching-only institutions maintain their standing, given the halo effect that research enjoys both inside and outside academia?

We may have to find a way of reconceptualising academic activities together with new ways of funding them. I believe that Ernest Boyer's formulation of different kinds of scholarship, which is already quite familiar, could provide a model. Professor Boyer distinguishes between discovery (close to basic research in the classic sense); integration or synthesis (close to scholarship); application (close to applied research); and teaching or pedagogy but including "service" on the United Sates model.

Instead of competing directly against one another for what will always be limited funds, institutions could bid for money from "pots" corresponding to each of these activities. They would state what they were aiming to achieve with the money for which they were bidding and would indicate the criteria and evidence which would enable them to tell whether they had been successful.

The next slice of funding would depend not only on the targets set for the use of the subsequent slice, but also on an analysis of past performance against the targets set. Institutions would bid periodically, not every year. They would only receive money if their provision surpassed a threshold level of quality, advice on which would come from a separate body. Maximum and minimum acceptable costs per unit would probably be needed, together with other safeguards.

Such a scheme would bring strategic planning and funding together; moderate the crude competition, and minimise the potential welfare losses of the RAE; legitimise activities other than research; and help applied research including service to business and the wider community.

It would also provide an incentive for institutions and their staff to improve their performance, and above all, enable institutions to play to their strengths and not be forced into a particular mode of activity for funding reasons.

If institutions are competing against themselves, will they not compete less hard than if they were competing against one another? I am not sure if this is true. But even if it were, there would still be limited funds and therefore a necessary element of selectivity.

In any case, against which - ie, whose - criteria should institutions be competing? If we assume a minimum of threshold level of quality, why should institutions be competing against anything other than the aims and objectives which reflect their own missions? What else could they be competing against? Do we not believe our own rhetoric about autonomous institutions being free to pursue their missions in the light of their particular circumstances?

Roger Brown is chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council.

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