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What future for the link between teaching and research?

Can research-led teaching survive the creation of the TEF? Jane Forster investigates the coverage of the research-teaching link in recent government announcements.
This article is more than 8 years old

Jane is the Vice-Chancellor’s Policy Adviser at Bournemouth University.

When he launched the Green Paper, Jo Johnson stressed the need to focus on teaching to redress the balance with the attention given to research. He described a “disengagement contract” between universities and students which allows staff to focus on research and neglect teaching.

The sector’s response was to welcome broadly the focus on teaching but to raise concerns that the policy direction might ultimately drive a further wedge between research and teaching. By the maxim that ‘what gets measured gets done’, a metrics-based approach to teaching inputs and outputs might drive out innovation. Could ‘extras’ such as undergraduate involvement in research or links within programmes to the research activity of academics be driven out by the new measurement imperatives?

The TEF is intended to increase transparency about what can differentiate universities from each other. Whatever your perspective on the philosophical debate about what a university really is (or should be), the fact is that there are and will always be teaching-only institutions that are entitled to be universities. At Bournemouth, we chose to focus on linking education with both research and professional practice, and we welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that in our TEF submissions, as I’m sure will other institutions.

The concern about a split appears to have been addressed in the TEF consultation. The proposed quality criteria include the extent to which “the learning environment is enriched by linkages between teaching and scholarship, research or professional practice” and there is a proposal for a commendation for excellence in research-led teaching. This is good news, but it also presents a challenge.  There is no metric for this, and there is no proposal to introduce one. In the meantime, it will be up to universities to provide evidence in their 15-page provider submissions of whether – and how – they are linking education with research.

On page 15 of the White Paper, there is an intriguing reference: “we will act to ensure teaching and research remain coherent and coordinated at the national as well as the institutional level, including …consideration of the interaction between teaching and research in Lord Stern’s review of the REF.” This is repeated on page 75: “Lord Stern’s review of the REF will also consider the interaction between teaching and research.”

The Stern Review’s terms of reference do not mention teaching, although they did invite input on the influence of the REF on scholarly activity and the choices that institutions make. Apart from discussions about staff eligibility, there doesn’t seem to have been much made of the link between teaching and research in the Stern responses, although at BU we said that the REF should incentivise institutions to forge stronger links between research and education. So how will Stern consider this interaction? Will the new REF include reportable outcomes that can be used as metrics or as a basis for submissions in future years of the TEF? If so, the two big frameworks could one day come more closely together.

The HEA are conducting a literature review into ‘what works’ in quality teaching, which will hopefully develop the sector’s grasp of how to link teaching to research most effectively. In the meantime, universities will need to strengthen their own understanding of the role of research in education, decide whether they want a link or not, and articulate this in their first TEF submission this autumn. The burden is now on us to show why linking research with teaching really matters.

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