From education to employment

New report explores the relationship between teaching & research in UK universities – and why it matters

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The paper considers the different approaches taken by higher education institutions, students, academics and policymakers towards the relationship between teaching and research, noting how frequently the concept of research-informed teaching is invoked, yet how obscurely it is implemented. The relationship appears to mean different things to different people – and administrations of all political complexions seem to be unconvinced by its value.

The HEPI Report explores the ways in which the relationship between teaching and research can add significant value and have a transformative impact on students. It also notes examples where there is in practice no obvious relationship between the two activities, and where from students’ perspectives there does not need to be.

The report finishes by asking whether it matters that the relationship is contested and sometimes opaque, and concludes that it does matter, at least in some respects:

  • References to research-informed teaching are frequently invoked but may not always translate into reality for many students. This can be misleading for students, can imply a hierarchy of research over teaching, and obscure a proper focus on teaching quality. It can also undermine the many outstanding examples of research-informed teaching that do exist across the sector.
  • The two activities of teaching and research are becoming increasingly separated within and between universities. This may mean that many students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will experience their undergraduate education without being exposed to research activity. For many students this will not matter, but for others it will and could lead to their being less likely to see further study as an option when they graduate, which could affect their future careers as well as impact on the demographic of the academic workforce.
  • Separation of the two activities also impacts on the career progression and academic identity of academic staff, particularly if teaching is perceived as having lesser status than research.
  • Without a compelling narrative, governments will continue to be unpersuaded about the value of the relationship, and this will affect government policy – to the potential detriment of important political, social and industrial objectives.

Nicola Dandridge, author of the report, said:

‘Teaching and research are at the heart of what universities do, and our UK higher education system is outstandingly strong in both its teaching and its research. But the nature of the relationship between the two is often not clear. At one level this might not matter, providing both are done well and achieve their (separate) objectives. But at another level it does matter – affecting transparency of communications with students, the status of teaching within universities, academic careers, and the achievement of broader social and political objectives. In particular, it ignores the transformational potential that teaching and research together can generate.

‘This report is based on desk-based research, and does no more than scratch the surface of a highly complex set of issues. But I hope that it does at least provoke a discussion about topics that are fundamental to our sector, and which deserve more scrutiny than they currently receive.’

The Rt Hon. the Lord David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014 and a Board member of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said:

‘This is a valuable analysis of the relationship between teaching and research in universities. It shows it is possible to deliver high-quality teaching without necessarily doing research as well. Nevertheless, there are links between them and the report ends with a useful warning of the risks of a policy framework which does not look at them together.’

Martha Longdon, who is studying for a PhD and who was previously President of Nottingham Trent Students’ Union as well as a board member and Chair of the Office for Students’ Student Panel, said:

‘Research-informed teaching, in all its forms, inspires students’ curiosity and prepares them for a wide variety of career paths and research opportunities. However, it is hampered by the ongoing administrative and philosophical separation of research and teaching in the higher education sector. This paper asks important questions as to how we can articulate and begin to redress the relationship between research and teaching, to provide students with access to emerging ideas and technologies and empower them to develop their own inquiry-based learning. Research-informed teaching, within and beyond universities, is of benefit to all, but particularly students.’

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