Three dilemma of research-teaching interactions

One of the things that I recall from my own student days is the excitement of being taught by world-leading researchers. I was privileged to have lectures and tutorials from individuals who were are the leading edge in their fields. Some were better teachers than others, but from all of them I and my fellow students derived real insights. I would also like to think that the research benefitted too. Explaining things clearly often leads to a deeper understanding, and maybe some of the questions that we posed sparked thoughts and new lines of inquiry.

This rosy picture of the relationship between teaching and research hides some real dilemmas that are faced by institutions and individuals as they balance sometimes conflicting demands.

  • Within universities there is a big overlap between the people who teach and the people who research. So, while there are clearly crossover benefits between the two activities, they also compete with one another in a zero-sum game. Because of the false hierarchy between teaching and research, where research is considered more valuable, teaching often suffers. In some cases the very best researchers seek to be excluded from teaching altogether. In my view this is to the detriment of both teaching and research, and also impacts on inspiring the next generation of researchers.
  • Within the UK the distribution of research intensity differs from the distribution of teaching intensity. Research is concentrated in a small number of institutions whereas teaching is spread across all. This means that for some subjects, in some institutions, not all the staff who teach can possibly be researchers.
  • Teaching volumes are a significant driver of funding for all universities, so they need to make sure that they provide courses that students want to study. This in turn determines the types of expertise needed among the staff, which then changes the areas of research that can be pursued. As a result, to some extent the research strategies of universities are determined by the subject choices of undergraduate students. Universities don’t have full control of their own research strategies.

There may be other dilemmas that I haven’t thought of (happy to receive more in the comments), but even these three are incredibly difficult to address. As mentioned in the comments to a previous post, these questions are neglected in policy debates. Perhaps these challenging dilemmas go someway to explaining why.

Written on June 3, 2013

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