We need better incentives for knowledge transfer and teaching innovation

Academic hiring and promotion are still overwhelmingly based on the quantity and quality of research, says Oriol Amat

August 28, 2021
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In most European countries, universities are fulfilling their missions of generating knowledge through research. In general, the scientific productivity of faculty is very high. However, in many countries, the other two key university activities – the transmission of knowledge to students through teaching, and knowledge transfer to the wider economic and social environment – do not have such favourable results. I believe that this is because the incentive systems for faculty benefit research more than knowledge transfer and teaching.

In many university systems, faculty evaluation is based almost exclusively on the number and quality of scientific articles. These mechanisms are decisive for faculty hiring and promotion. It is the “publish or perish” rule. One consequence of this policy is that when an article is accepted by a journal, the researcher considers that his or her work has been completed.

Therefore, the incentives for good article production are clear. Faculty members know very well that when they finish their doctorate, they must publish strong scientific articles to be hired and they must continue to publish articles in top journals if they want to be promoted in the future.

However, the effort dedicated to ensuring that the knowledge generated reaches society, such as through dissemination or agreements with companies, has no incentives. Neither do teaching innovation activities to improve student learning. Technology, society and students are changing in a disruptive way, but universities are lagging behind.

It is true that there are faculty who, thanks to their vocation and passion for a job well done, invest a lot of time in activities that are not appreciated. But most of them have working weeks that by far exceed 40 hours and their time is limited.

We need new solutions and there are three measures that I think could help:

  1. Faculty incentives must be improved with accreditation systems for teaching innovation and knowledge transfer. In most countries, there are national university quality agencies that periodically evaluate faculty activity and issue accreditations. These evaluations and accreditations focus on research activity and tend to give much less relevance to knowledge transfer and teaching innovation.
  2. These accreditations should have a clear impact on faculty hiring and promotion. If these measures were adopted, three ways of hiring faculty could coexist: one based on research excellence (which should continue to be used for the vast majority of hires), one based on excellence in teaching innovation and one based on excellence in knowledge transfer. In all cases the candidate must have a good research profile, but in each pathway excellence is focused on one of the three dimensions. Since it is important that incentives for teaching and knowledge transfer are not detrimental to research, universities must receive more funding. It is necessary to invest more in research and, simultaneously, to incorporate additional resources and incentives to promote excellence in teaching innovation and knowledge transfer.
  3. There is an additional measure that could contribute greatly to improving the social impact of research: the incorporation of co-funding of research projects. The bodies that fund research projects could require that any grant application be accompanied by a joint-funding commitment from a public or private entity. This would encourage the research to be of interest to the entity co-funding the project. This policy, which is mainly designed for fields in the social sciences, should not be used for basic research, but applied research. The co-financing requirement has already been used with good results in countries such as Germany and Finland.

These measures are intended not to reduce incentives for research, but to increase incentives for faculty members who are most interested in knowledge transfer and teaching innovation. Co-funding of research can lead to research that has a greater and better impact on society. In short, these types of measures could help universities to generate more knowledge that will have a more favourable impact on students and society.

Oriol Amat is rector of Pompeu Fabra University.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 will be published at 00:01 BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit (1-3 September), which will focus on the interrelationship between universities and the places in which they are located.


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