Scientists talk up teaching but still fail to promote it

Poll shows that despite equality claims, research remains the priority. Zoe Corbyn reports

May 6, 2010

Scientists may feel that teaching is important, but in practice many still eschew the lecture theatre in favour of the laboratory bench, a study has found.

A report published by Nature Education, part of the Nature Publishing Group, concludes that although scientists personally value education as much as research, they tend to make decisions, both for themselves and their departments, that prioritise the latter.

This attitude towards teaching is "troubling" and "truly pervasive", says the report, Time to Decide: The Ambivalence of the World of Science towards Education.

The analysis is based on a survey of 450 university scientists from more than 45 countries who have both undergraduate teaching and research responsibilities.

It states that while in theory most consider teaching to be as important as research, their actions suggest otherwise.

While 77 per cent say that teaching and research are equally important and only 7 per cent say that research takes precedence, when asked to select a candidate for a role involving both duties, 48 per cent chose a star researcher with no significant teaching experience.

The report says that the respondents believe that this is the appointment their institution would want them to make, adding that despite missions to educate, most top-level universities are "far more interested" in pursuing a research than a teaching agenda.

It notes that such institutions tend to "direct more funding, awards and job security to outstanding researchers than outstanding teachers".

The report adds that while 25 per cent of the survey respondents feel that their institutions value teaching and research equally, 41 per cent say that they value research more highly.

It concludes that institutional values must change if science education is to improve, and calls for universities to do more to tie teaching to prestige and financial rewards.

The development of a "standardised system" of evaluating teaching quality would "promote compelling metrics of educational merit until they are as highly prized as traditional metrics of research merit", it says.

The analysis follows a report - Reward and Recognition of Teaching in Higher Education, published last year by the Higher Education Academy - that reached similar conclusions.

The call for a standardised system for evaluating teaching in the academy was rejected by some.

Alan Jenkins, an emeritus professor at Oxford Brookes University and expert on the relationship between teaching and research, said that such a system was "likely to lead to narrow, reductionist, formulaic approaches".

He argued instead that funding councils should "require" institutions to put in place promotional systems that value teaching, and called for the forthcoming research excellence framework, which will be used to distribute about £1.5 billion a year in quality-related research income in England, to be "radically revised" to put greater emphasis on teaching.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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