The Research-Teaching Nexus: Have we reached the tipping point?

Last week the Higher Education Academy quietly published a 65-page report entitled “Rewarding educators and education leaders in research-intensive institutions” by Dilly Fung and Claire Gordon. It was duly covered in the Times Higher Education, and caused a few mandatory murmurs on Twitter, but so far as I can see, it was soon forgotten by most of us in higher education. Perhaps I may be wrong and this is not the case. It may be that people are still chewing on the report’s contents and trying to make sense of it, just as I am also trying to do. After all, shocking news has a numbing effect and takes some time to register. However, whatever it is, reading through the report left me with a strong suspicion that at this point in time, UK  higher education might be tipping into a new era where the balance between teaching (or education, as the report authors prefer) and research is going to be sharply redressed.

Briefly, the report publishes the findings from a study set up to identify the challenges that research-intensive institutions have in ensuring that educators and education-focused leaders are appropriately rewarded for their work. To get answers to this question, the authors interviewed the pro vice chancellors (or their equivalent) responsible for education in ten Russell Group universities. In addition they also conducted two focus groups with Heads of Education Development in Russell Group universities, and also had an interview with an executive search consultant with experience in facilitating senior academic appointments.

By and large the main findings of the study collaborate the small but growing literature on education-focussed academics. This includes the fact that research is so highly esteemed in higher education that to all intents and purposes, what counts for reward and progression in higher education is performance in research. In fact, the research culture within research intensive universities is so deeply ingrained that there still exists in many institutions a distinct imbalance in academic promotion criteria. For instance, in some institutions covered by this study, on the research side, calibrated sets of criteria have been developed, but with respect to teaching and learning, these tend only to be cursorily mentioned or are even omitted.

What is interesting, though, is that this study clearly  reveals that “times are changing”  and higher education institutions need to be more “explicitly orientated towards valuing education alongside research” if they are to survive. The reasons for this are very clear. Over the past twenty years the government has introduced a series of policy papers, and put in place a raft of measures, including funding formulae, aimed at refocusing attention on the quality of teaching and learning in universities. The first salvo was the Dearing Report in 1997 which explicitly signalled that government was serious about reforms in teaching and learning in universities. This was followed by a series of policy papers which culminated in the opening up of the higher education market, and the introduction of student fees.

Most recently, in its 2015 Green Paper, the government proposed linking the student fees that universities can charge to their performance in learning and teaching as assessed through a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that is still to be clearly defined. Suddenly, funding streams for teaching and learning are no longer guaranteed, just as base research funding is no longer guaranteed following the introduction of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).As the authors point out, it is now “highly likely that the TEF will fundamentally affect the external incentive structure in which UK HE operates” and this will in turn “affect the internal dynamics of institutional employment and career structures.”

Moreover, students are becoming increasingly savvy, and national and international league tables have become important considerations in their choice of a university place. In short, it means that a university department, or even an entire university, can rise or fall on the basis of a university league table. Research performance does contribute to a university’s position on league tables and on its reputation, but as one pro vice chancellor pointed out: “Unless we make the education offer … consistent with our research standing and our global brand, we have a long term existential problem.”

In short, in my opinion, the most important finding from this study by Dilly Fung and Claire Gordon is that it is no longer business as usual in higher education. Learning and teaching now count, and universities have to do something about this if they are to guarantee their survival in this brave new world.

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