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The complicated relationship between research and teaching at a university

Universities have two missions: to transmit knowledge to students and to expand knowledge through research. However, these two ideas can sometimes come into conflict. A growing number of universities have pushed their faculty members to increase scientific research output due to the commercialisation of academic science and the strong association of research with reputation and university ranking. However, does this mean that the teaching quality at universities is suffering?

I was motivated to write this article after a discussion with a friend from my course about how the University of Zurich has pulled itself out of the THE (Times Higher Education) ranking because of the focus on quantity not quality of its academic research output. This created an interesting discussion about how we felt some of our lecturers seemed disinterested in teaching and were instead more likely to be focused on their research and pursuing their academic career progression.

Although the University of Bath ranked 201-250 in 2022 in the THE table, to what extent does research take a greater priority over education?

It is a big role of universities to carry out academic research to help pave the way for new ideas and theoretical advancement. However, after some of my research, it can be said that higher education institutions give a lower status over carrying out research and that this acts as a “major barrier” to developing teaching and learning. It even describes how it can be a career risk for staff because prioritising teaching is less likely to result in a promotion.

Another reason for research to be prioritised is to increase its university ranking and reputation. As international competition amongst universities has grown, rankings not only significantly influence the decision-making of future students but can also influence the amount of funding and grants the university can get. Governments do not look at the Complete University Guide which is focused on student experience when allocating government funding. It instead reviews rankings of research-oriented guides such as the REF (Research Excellence Framework) “to prioritise funding where we can get the best value and ensure we deliver the government’s policy aims”. This incentivises universities to focus on research production over teaching quality, as a means to secure extra government funding.

But does an emphasis on research lead to a devaluation of undergraduate teaching? 

Due to the economic significance of research at university, there is evidence that faculty members’ research performance has been positively related to their salary, something which is not replicated with their teaching performance, encouraging lecturers to produce volume over quality of research (as seen in the case of the University of Zurich). Research and teaching seem to be competing activities for professors, one which is rewarded, and one which is not. Furthermore, it can be difficult for academic staff to focus on research and teaching equally and provide good results for both without being overloaded with work. The REF (Research Excellence Framework) argued that “active researchers benefit from reduced teaching workloads” however, the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) say research expertise was invoked “to bolster claims of teaching excellence” and as a mechanism to market the university to students. But with issues of resource misallocation, a disengagement of teaching in lectures and a lack of clear benefits for students from research development, I feel the teaching/research conflict could have more drawbacks than benefits.

I intend to investigate the University of Bath and see the extent to which they are dealing with the conflicts between research and teaching among its academic staff. I have conducted a FOI (freedom of information) to delve into this further.

Stay tuned for updates.

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