Tutors' research conflict 'inflated'

February 6, 1998

New research from Oxford Brookes University is re-opening the debate about the relationship between teaching and research.

Universities have begun to re-examine whether it is necessary for good lecturers to be first and foremost good researchers. The debate is fuelled in part by the knowledge that it would be cheaper if teachers did not have to be trained and equipped as researchers. But it has also been suggested that students resent the time lecturers spend on research compared with teaching. Such resentment, it is feared, can only deepen as students dig into their own pockets to pay for their university tuition.

But before radical steps are taken much more needs to be understood about the relationship between teaching and research, according to Roger King, chair of the vice-chancellors' working group on teaching and learning.

"It is a complex relationship and one that is causing some soul-searching in universities at present," said Professor King, vice-chancellor of Humberside University. "We need to find out whether the two activities are really as symbiotic as has been assumed."

Traditionally, good teaching has been regarded as inseparable from research. And new findings by an Oxford Brookes research team, suggest that universities should think twice about severing that link. The research indicates that apparent student resentment of lecturers' research should not be taken at face value.

Whether today's students want their lecturers to be active researchers as well may depend on their motive for being at university, according to research group member Roger Lindsay. Students who were negative towards research, he said, were those who came to university to make social contacts or gain a useful qualification. Students who claimed to be interested in learning for its own sake were more positive.

The group re-examined a series of studies which found that the more active academics were in research, the lower rating they tended to receive from students. "We found that the correlational studies suffered from a fatal flaw in design," said Dr Lindsay. The studies measured research quantity rather than quality. The group suspected that highly productive researchers were often seen as poor teachers simply because they had less time available to students.

To confirm their hunch eight focus groups of students from different disciplines were questioned on their university teaching. All the groups made about twice as many positive statements about lecturer research as negative statements. The higher the research assessment exercise rating of a department, the more negative statements students made about teaching and research, but the number of positive statements also increased in proportion.

While most students said that research had some negative effects upon their learning, particularly in terms of lecturer availability, they were also aware of the benefits: enthusiastic, up-to-date and relevant lecturers.

The reduced availability of lecturers was a definite source of distress to the students, particularly the "otherwise engaged" notice. "There are about three lecturers that have got on their doors 'Do not disturb. I am doing research on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday'," complained one. "If you are a university lecturer you've just got to realise that you're there to work with students." And research was often seen by students as a private vice rather than an employer requirement. Some believed that lecturers earned extra money from research activity.

The students believed that lecturers were paid to teach, and that there were a set of core teacher characteristics on which they should perform adequately: communication skills, approachability, availability outside class, ability to enthuse students, and up-to-date knowledge. Time spent in research does not automatically develop the first three characteristics and it inevitably reduces availability outside class.

Complaints about availability were not the only beef, however. The students wanted information: when are staff going to be away, what do they intend to do, when will they return and so on. But their comments were not all critical. "They're university lecturers they're not just teachers at school ... they'd get very stale teaching the same things all the time," said one student. Another agreed: "Without people doing research, I mean it's almost dead in a way."

The team's research is still in its early stages. But the focus group evidence suggests that student hostility towards academic research has been greatly exaggerated and that the appearance of conflict between research and teaching has been superimposed upon a positive underlying relationship.

Teaching and Research: Student Perspectives and Policy Implications byA.Jenkins, T.Blackman, R.Lindsay, R.Saltzberg will be published in the journal Studies in Higher Education.

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