The British Academy set out to investigate the relationship between teaching and research in higher education and to see whether the two could be considered to exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship. This relationship is termed here a ‘nexus’ – an extensive, visible, and institutionally supported series of productive, interlocking and often bidirectional connections between teaching and research in higher education, within and across all subjects.
The project summary presents the findings of longitudinal and comparative research undertaken for this project and aims to contribute to wider debate about and help advance discussions on the relationship between teaching and research in higher education. It makes use of both quantitative and qualitative data and discusses challenges to the idea of a teaching-research nexus, including from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as presenting a series of opportunities for a closer and beneficial relationship between teaching and research.
The summary is accompanied by two original pieces of commissioned research, one (An Exploration of the Teaching-Research Nexus) conducted before the disruptive impacts of COVID-19, and the other (Critical examination of the teaching-research nexus) produced in light of changes resulting from the pandemic. Alongside this sits an analysis of student responses to a survey conducted on behalf of the Academy by a team at NUS Insights.
In presenting these findings in the project summary, evidence has been organised into sections focusing on different actors and stakeholders in higher education: students, academics, institutions, and the sector and its context.
Students across all subject areas identified a connection between teaching and research, but there was a lack of awareness of a bidirectional aspect to this relationship. Where something more akin to a ‘nexus’ was understood, however, it was noted that different skills were required of academics undertaking these activities. There was also suggestion that students perceived greater emphasis and pressure on the importance of research to be a hindrance to good teaching. Greater acknowledgement of the contributions of students from various backgrounds to academic endeavours may also help to break down barriers of perception, helping students to better envisage themselves as researchers.
Competing workload pressures can have a negative impact on academics’ mental health and productivity, as well as lessening the correlation between their teaching and research activities. During the pandemic, a re-focus on teaching was not accompanied by a lessening of research pressures, thus exacerbating workload demands. Trends towards teaching-only contracts, particularly for early career researchers, female academics, and those from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds are also impacting upon the abilities of certain groups to intertwine their teaching and research, as well as potentially further entrenching inequalities in academia.
Practical structural separation between teaching and research is apparent across a number of higher education institutions, with a lack of funding available to strengthen the connection between the two activities. Competing pressures and priorities derived from sector-wide metrics were also noted to be having an impact on academic contract types and the relative values of teaching and research within institutions.
The sector and its context
Despite increased competitiveness reflected in institutional responses to league tables, performance frameworks based on metrics, and changes to policy in research assessment, there is qualitative evidence that bringing research into teaching and affording opportunities for students to contribute to academic research can be beneficial. The structure of higher education is, however, still defined by its research focus. Greater dialogue with the public about the role of teaching in higher education and its importance to students’ development could, however, help to achieve greater public appreciation of the teaching-research nexus.
Opportunities for the teaching-research nexus
The evidence presented in the summary report highlights opportunities for a closer and more positive relationship between teaching and research and the role that can be played by different actors in the higher education sector in facilitating this.
- Institutions could develop more effective strategies for effectively communicating the reciprocal relationship between teaching and research to their students, at all levels of study, indicating a productive means of working in partnership with students. This would also help students to appreciate how research helps to shape their curricula, and how this in turn helps to shape research, before the advanced stage of study when they are expected to conduct first-hand research themselves.
- Sector agencies, such as Advance HE (formerly the Higher Education Academy) or other organisations as appropriate, could work to promote the value of the interrelationship between teaching and research and increase recognition of the reciprocal relationship between the two through the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework, the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, and the Concordat on Research Integrity.
- Fellows and Associate Fellows of Advance HE and accredited members of other appropriate sector agencies and institutions, could encourage the development of a culture of greater reflective practice and of pedagogical practices which enhance the relationship between teaching and research.
- Institutions could support academics by giving them time to undertake both teaching and research (or scholarship), as well as to explore how their teaching and research could be integrated to the benefit of both activities – not just in terms of research-led teaching, but also teaching-led research. Institutions can foster an open dialogue on workforce planning and the rationale for supporting teaching and research specialists as well as academics on balanced teaching and research contracts, the reason for this division of labour, how it relates to the nexus, and whether the nexus would work on a community level rather than necessarily with an individual.
- Post-pandemic, institutions and the sector more broadly could recognise and address the workload pressures faced by academics. The nexus may provide a more neutral means by which all parties can approach and contextualise this issue by means of discussion of the nexus and the ideal of the academic endeavour as fundamentally connecting research and teaching.
- Sector agencies, such as Advance HE or other organisations as appropriate, could support institutions to explore more broadly the relationships between teaching and research. This could in part be achieved through greater communication between institutions on approaches to teaching and research in order to share best practice and raise awareness of the variability that exists across teaching and research practices.
- Government and the higher education sector could take a broader, sector-wide approach to policy development, engaging with teaching and research balanced and teaching-focused universities to provide a more balanced and realistic picture of the teaching-research nexus, rather than relying on the view from research-focused institutions.
- Institutions could develop or clarify promotion systems and criteria to have greater parity between teaching and research, in order to incentivise and reward academics for bringing research into their teaching, letting teaching influence their research, or for teaching outside of their area of specialism.
- Government and its agencies could look to achieve greater parity between teaching and research at a policy level. REF, TEF, and KEF could all be considered in terms of whether they could adopt a more holistic approach in their reporting and criteria, to better represent the function of higher education and the benefits of excellent teaching and research for institutions, for students, and for society.
- Research funding bodies could consider making impact on teaching a criterion in the evaluation of research grants, both at the application and reporting stages.
- The higher education sector could provide case studies and examples which would help to enhance data on the nexus across the different disciplines and better make the case for other changes and developments. The sector could also help re-frame the narrative which the public receives about the role of higher education through promoting public-facing academic activities which celebrate the interrelationship between teaching and research.
The UK’s higher education sector sits in a global landscape of increased marketisation and greater internationalisation in which league tables are more focused on research measurables. A by-product of this has been the increased volume and intensity of the work of academics and a tendency for the sector to privilege research over teaching.
The evidence suggests a disconnect between a wide appreciation of the value of a supportive and bi-directional relationship between teaching and research by those engaged in higher education provision, and current expectations and funding priorities led by policy directives which bring the two activities into conflict, or which heavily prioritise research.
Teaching is essential to the future sustainability of higher education, to continuing research output, and the development of students into citizens. If certain spheres of work receive less attention, there will be implications for the quality of teaching, the quality of research and, ultimately, the quality of student learning.