Teaching is the highest purpose, argues thinker

February 18, 2010

Research is a "drag" on universities and an obstacle to their primary purpose: teaching students.

So argued John Haldane, professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews, in a lecture titled "The value of a university" at the Lord Dearing memorial conference on 11 February.

"The mass of researchers has become a drag upon and even an obstacle to the pursuit of the primary purpose of universities, namely the education of undergraduates," Professor Haldane said.

"As the situation in the public finances worsens, hard choices will have to be made. It is hardly plausible to insist that education should continue to enjoy (current) levels of support, much of which is being consumed by researchers engaged in pursuit of their own interest, without obvious benefit to the students for whose sake the universities were brought into being."

He cited John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University (1852) and John Stuart Mill's 1867 rectorial inaugural address at St Andrews as key commentaries in considering higher education's structure.

"Newman was not against research but thought that it should be conducted in specially appointed institutes," he said. "Mill thought the fact that certain activities are important for individuals and society does not mean they should be part of the university curriculum."

Professor Haldane identified a need to distinguish "between the business of cultivating minds and ... conducting research, and between both of these and ... training people for specific forms of employment".

"One needs to challenge the idea that good teaching is impossible unless teachers are also researchers," he said, adding that "the more academics have the opportunity for research, the less they wish to teach undergraduates".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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