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Research, teaching, and what universities have in common with the banks

Tears are often shed over the increased separation between teaching and research in modern universities and the death of the Humboldtian ideal, but have we asked ourselves hard enough questions about why?
This article is more than 7 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

Academia, and arguably society more widely loves prestige. From league tables to ivory towers; emeritus professorships to royal charters; the world of individual and collective scholarship is saturated around the aspiration of obtaining – and maintaining – the sparkle-dust of prestige and esteem.

As Paul Blackmore has highlighted in his pamphlet for HEPI, and also at a recent seminar An unnatural division? Research and Teaching – how can the twin pillars of HE thrive?, research is the most important source of prestige in academic life. Research consistently trumps teaching as a means to a successful and prestigious academic career and also defines universities’ success in global league tables, as well as many national ones.

Prestige should be distinguished from reputation, which is much easier to measure, less scarce, and comes and goes more regularly than prestige. Blackmore defines prestige as follows:

  • It is relatively scarce;
  • It is hard to measure;
  • It is slow for individuals or institutions to gain or lose;
  • It is often decided upon by insiders;

The supremacy of research over teaching in academic life comes from how research quality more readily attains the above qualities than does teaching. It is, as Jane Austen might say, a truth universally acknowledged that research takes priority over teaching in the academy as a result.

Daring to question Humboldt

At the aforementioned parliamentary seminar, hosted by HEPI and HEA, both Blackmore and TEF chair Chris Husbands cited an influential paper published by John Hattie and Herb Marsh that shows no empirical relationship (positive or negative) between the quality of teaching and the quality of research. The paper demonstrates that research and teaching are not automatically symbiotic, and there is presently little empirical evidence that either of the two activities influences the quality of the other.

This is somewhat of a body blow to the Humboldt ideal of universities, where scholarship is imagined as a unitary activity that takes the form of research and education. Beyond the empirical evidence presented, the synergy between research and teaching has been further undermined over recent years by the effects of larger numbers of students, and increasingly esoteric and advanced areas of research inquiry.

Speaking at a panel event before Christmas I was derided for fostering ‘anti-expert rhetoric’ by daring to suggest that a clunky combination of research and teaching should be respected without question as ‘research-led education’. There is an uneasy implication here that this is unquestionably and always superior to a ‘non-research led education’ (i.e. education not conducted by active researchers), which seems a particularly egregious example of snobbery in the academy. As it was put to me, if higher education teaching is not conducted by active researchers, “we might as well be in a further education college”. Perish the thought!

Condescension aside, there is a bitter irony that unquestioning defendants of ‘research-led education’ have limited evidence to support its effectiveness. A recent study has found that “skilled researchers and effective teachers are neither substitutes nor complements for each other”, and HEPI and HEA’s research showing students have (at best) mixed views about the merits of being taught by top researchers (at least for its own sake). Pedagogical guru Graham Gibbs makes the point somewhat bluntly:

“If the best researchers were really the best teachers then policies would ensure that successful, well paid, researchers would also teach longer hours, so as to benefit the students most, and students would be protected from spending many hours with teachers who were weak at research. I know of no institution in the world where this actually happens…

“At the level of whole universities, those that are strongest at research have been found to be those that pay least attention to teaching and its improvement ”

As it happens, my very first article for Wonkhe compared universities’ performance in REF and NSS. Aside from a selection of the usual, generously funded suspects, the data showed that most universities must make a strategic choice between excelling in REF or excelling in the NSS (whatever one may think about the merits of either exercise). I expect that TEF will show similar results.

While tying ourselves in knots over grand strategies for ‘research-led education’, the real long-term trend in our sector has been towards increased distinction in research and teaching. Research prestige and funding is becoming ever more concentrated in a smaller number of institutions and a smaller number of people, with nearly half of all HEFCE and research council funding ending up in London, Oxford and Cambridge.

On the flipside, most of the heralded ‘new’ institutions that will be enabled further by the Higher Education and Research Bill will be teaching-only establishments, with teaching often conducted by professionals rather than conventional academics. The Lords revolt which inserted the HE Bill’s new opening clause, specifying that a university should indeed conduct both teaching and research, was borne partly out of opposition to this fact. This still begs the question: apart from appeals to Humboldt, why should a university (old or new) not be allowed to be ‘teaching only’? Would that really, to paraphrase from earlier, ‘merely’ make a university a further education college?

Within established universities, homogenous research-only and teaching-only contracts are becoming more common. Many are worried that TEF and reforms to REF will accelerate this trend, as well as the institutional separation between the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation.

Though the government belatedly requested for Lord Stern’s review of REF to give some thought to research and teaching synergy, this was really an afterthought. The trajectory of policy is clearly heading towards greater and greater separation. If one were to believe some of the rebellious Lords and some attendees at the HEA-HEPI seminar, this is the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it.

One problem with asking how research and teaching can be more symbiotic is that it assumes that the Humboldtian ideal of a codependent relationship is an end-in-itself. The evidence shows that research and teaching only improve each other in very particular circumstances, and not as an inevitable result of being conducted in the same institution, same department, or by the same people. The sector has failed to demonstrate to government and policy makers that combining teaching and research will make both better, and so the infrastructure of policy making has drifted inexorably in the opposite direction. The dynamics of prestige within the academy have only further exacerbated this trend.

Why universities are like banks

The tone of the HEA-HEPI discussion included invocations not to ‘demonise the researcher’ for their lack of attention to teaching, and to be wary focusing too much on the ‘student customer’ and neglecting scholarship. One interesting counterpoint suggested that no other business area is liable to neglect the importance of valuing its customers, and inadvertently suggested the example of banks.

But let’s think about how banks operate. Banks, traditionally, have two arms: high-street services for businesses and individuals; and investment services, primarily conducted with other banks and financial services organisation. The vast majority of the public’s experience and knowledge of banks is through the former, primarily in the use of current accounts to store cash and savings, and perhaps also in mortgage and insurance services. For the banks, this is a low prestige, low-value service, and is increasingly so, but it is also (or at least was) essential to their operation. Retail services started out by providing banks with a line of cheap, low-risk, secure capital for investment activities, but they also define how banks are perceived as a social service, by providing interest and lending to individuals and small businesses.

The real prestige and profit in banking comes from commercial and investment banking. Very few of us understand the ins-and-outs of this. Within the world of banking, it is investment activities that matter the most, and any ambitious banker will want to secure a career in a highly lucrative investment speciality, such as brokering or asset management.

As retail banking has become less and less profitable, banks have tried to get by with as little as they can get away with. High street branches are closing rapidly, but not without causing reputational embarrassment. Retail banking services a very wide range of stakeholders, and banks’ place in society is ultimately dependent on their public utility and reputation, however much an individual bank or banker will obtain more prestige through going into closed-circle of investment banking.

The parallels here with universities are striking. Teaching is universities’ broad-stakeholder, public utility activity, but it also carries little academic prestige. Research, particularly at the top end, caters to a small number of public stakeholders, but it carries the highest prestige for universities’ employees. Research does have a vital public utility, just as some aspects of investment banking are essential to a successful economy, but very few members of the public understand the ins and outs of high-end university research or experience it in their day-to-day lives.

For most members of the public, universities are experienced only through the education they provide, either to themselves, their peers, their families, or their employees. The public’s limited understanding of prestige in the sector is mostly tied to the idea of the Russell Group (a self-selecting club primarily defined by research intensity and league table success) and ‘ancientness’.

History and the composition of most league tables means that prestige is still a dominant factor in the recruitment and graduate labour markets, and we are left with the odd situation where graduates’ appeal to employers (and thus to applicants) is determined by the quality of their alma mater’s research (i.e. their prestige) as much as it is to the quality of the teaching they received.

Universities receive far more funding to conduct teaching than they do to conduct research: more voters depend on good teaching than on good research. Yet staff in universities are valued, promoted, and obtain prestige, success and good salaries for their success in research, which few members of the public will notice or understand. To that end, as Gibbs, Jo Johnson, and many others have argued, teaching is too often squeezed or neglected as much as can be gotten away with. Recent evidence from Australia suggests students’ tuition fees are even directly subsidising research activity to boost positions in global rankings.

This is not a good recipe for universities’ public reputation, and it is being used as a justification for introducing the regulatory burden of the TEF. Don’t agree with me? Well, just look at the reputation of the banks.

An inevitable separation?

Without an injection of prestige into teaching or a withdrawal of prestige from research, it seems unlikely that the slide towards increasing separation will be avoided. Blackmore calls this a ‘wicked problem’ and argues that TEF is very unlikely to achieve the former, while the very nature of prestige makes it unlikely that the hierarchy-obsessed world of academia can swiftly dismantle centuries of prestige, privilege and social norms when it comes to research. TEF will certainly be a dent in the reputation of several Russell Group universities, but it will not undo their success in the global rankings, and thus probably not undermine their fundamental prestige and standing with their core student markets.

The government and taxpayers simply wish to maximise the value obtained from both research and teaching and are largely indifferent to their symbiosis unless it is clear that it adds value. At present, it is not. Universities need to do a lot better at demonstrating that a virtual ‘Glass-Steagall wall’ between teaching and research is – and will be – damaging for the quality of both. The HEA-HEPI seminar suggested that this was “an unnatural division”, but if anything, it is the synergy of high-level research and good quality teaching that seems increasingly ‘unnatural’.

5 responses to “Research, teaching, and what universities have in common with the banks

  1. I’m personally astonished that this debate is even happening! For me, the ‘pinnacle’ of education is all about inquiry, challenging the status quo and thinking ‘out-side the box’. When students enter University they need to step up to that level of independent, free thinking that has made academia the heart of any civilised society. How can students be challenged to reach that level if there is not a culture and environment of research and critical thinking that they are a part of? Surely a separation of teaching and research would push learning back to early secondary school level where pupils just read, remember and recite what they are told? In a post-truth, Trump world this is more important than ever. It is unfair and inaccurate in my opinion to label the pursuit of research as some means to achieve ‘prestige’. Yes, prestige comes along with high quality research but the latter delivers an environment and culture of the highest standard of learning. I would personally be much happier for my child to be educated in an environment where he is encouraged to challenge and re-shape the ‘truth’ through evidence and inquiry, even if that meant he paid a premium for the privilege. Otherwise, in the future, could he not just be replaced by a robot?

  2. I always know I’ll be rewarded when I start to read one of David Morris’ longer, detailed, well-argued pieces. I like the way he’s willing to take a swipe at some uninterrogated assumptions in higher education. So perhaps he’ll understand if I reply in the same vein.

    The piece is raising the old question of whether teaching and research must necessarily take place in the same institution. Are they mutually reinforcing, and is it necessary for those teaching undergraduates to be engaged in research? Morris cites some studies which suggest the answer is no, on both counts. There is a suggestion that universities might operate a Glass-Steagal approach and separate the functions, and presumably distribute staff according to their dispositions. It is a popular call at the moment in the wonkoshphere, and Morris cites a 2004 paper which endorses it. Was it ever published in a journal and peer-reviewed? The link takes me to a conference paper.

    Firstly, let’s dispel some of the assumptions. Let’s leave aside unresolved questions of whether the REF can be said to measure research quality, or the NSS measure teaching quality. Not all teaching in HE is research led and some of it doesn’t need to be. If you are teaching an undergraduate 100 or sometimes 200 level Linguistics or Biochemistry courses, the content is likely to be pretty similar from one department to another. The expectation is that anyone suitably qualified in Linguistics or Biochemistry would be able to turn their hand to these. Research-led teaching tends to occupy more specialized 300 (UG Level 6) courses.

    Secondly, skim through any student course evaluations and you will find that the one thing they appreciate in a lecturer is enthusiasm. I can still remember the classes taught by the most research-active lecturer when I was a student. She would often arrive breathless from the lab, but with a story to tell about the latest experiment. You won’t be surprised to find that academics impart their own specialist subject with most enthusiasm. In turn, it is surprising what insights you pick up from students when teaching on your research area and supervising their projects and dissertations. Universities aim to ensure that students have the opportunity to engage in research during the course of their studies, because this skill above all is commensurate with ‘graduateness’. How can this be taught except by trained researchers?

    Thirdly, things have moved on since Hattie and Marsh were writing in 2004. External and internal audits in universities have insisted on subjects demonstrating that teaching and research are linked. Why would QAA demand this if there were no symbiotic links? Perhaps the most obvious justification for the linkage is curriculum development. The kind of degrees which are likely to be appropriated by ‘alternative providers’ are professional courses which are taught by practitioners, and not necessarily those advancing new developments in the subject. Sometimes the curriculum is set by those professional bodies. For the rest of academia, we would be shocked if we visited our old university department and found the same curriculum in place that we followed 20 or 30 years ago. How did the new material get there if not informed by recent research?

    Call me old school, but honestly, we have to decide whether we want universities or we don’t. Morris mocks the panicked response that HE without research means “we might as well be in a further education college”. That shudder reflects not primarily status anxiety , but a recognition that FE is hardly a sector with a shining reputation. It is underfunded and tarnished with poor staff retention, poor work conditions, short-term contracts, uncertainty of mission and patchy outcomes – with private providers circling the remains. The higher education sector, by contrast, has good records of retention and the vast majority who enter achieve an honours degree. The satisfaction rates are excellent. Can we really afford as a nation to convert a large part of the successful sector into replicas of the failing one?

    Nobody ever claimed that each and every lecturer was the embodiment of the academic holy trinity of teaching, research and scholarship, but we all benefit by working in an environment where research takes place. No, not all good researchers will be good teachers, but most of them are at least competent. On the other hand, the inevitable outcome of dividing teaching from research would not resemble banking so much as hydraulic fracking, only with more protest and worse pollution of the surroundings.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply Liz. Unfortunately I haven’t the time for a full response, and there are many points you make on which I think we’ll agree – I admit my style is occasionally a little misanthropic.

      However I should say that the Hattie and Marsh’s work was published in a journal; it’s just that I couldn’t find a free-to-view link easily on writing and the conference paper was an easily accessible summary of their findings.

      The full reference that was cited at the event is as follows:

      The Relationship between Research and Teaching: A Meta-Analysis
      John Hattie and H. W. Marsh
      Review of Educational Research
      Vol. 66, No. 4 (Winter, 1996), pp. 507-542

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