Teaching versus research: the great dilemma for universities

The announcement of the cuts to university funding has produced, as I foreshadowed two days ago, a series of worried responses from university administrators about the likely effects, while from those lower down in the system have come complaints about what will happen to teaching: there will be more short-term positions, courses will be cut, jobs will be lost, and students will be even more poorly served than they are now. You can get some sense of the hostility towards universities from former students, which I also talked about, from the comments on On Line Opinion to the post, republished there yesterday.

I am no opponent of research, as will be clear from my career. Its importance grew, and I could see that from the time I joined the Australian Research Grants Committee (ARGC) in 1981. I became worried about what the growing importance of research was doing to teaching and learning, which I saw then, and still see, as the primary purpose of the university, and the primary role of academics. Put simply, you can do research in any number of settings, of which the university is only one. But higher education needs universities, or institutions that look like universities, whatever they are called.

Research so-called is a comparatively new activity for universities, and in our country largely dates not just from the second world war, but from the establishment of the ARGC in 1964 (its first grants coming the next year). Examine any book about universities or higher education published prior to the war, and you’ll rarely find ‘research’ even in the index. People talked then about ‘knowledge’ and scholarship’. Universities were not funded explicitly for research, though the colleges of advanced education were told that they were not so funded, and that they could not offer the PhD, or honours programs. Indeed, it was not really until the Dawkins reforms of 1988 to 1990 that the Commonwealth Government was able to say in any clear way on what basis universities had been funded in the past. The first PhD was awarded in Australia in 1947, and when I graduated with that degree in 1964, there were barely a hundred who did so that year. Now there are five thousand or so each year across the country.

The effect has been to displace and downgrade the core purpose of the university, which is to transmit what we know to the next generation, and to stimulate within its members the urge to find out more, along the lines that have proved successful so far, which are also transmitted. Research has to be a part of that process, because how we develop new knowledge is determined by research, which students also learn as part of their study. All my experience in fifty years in universities is that teaching and research are separate intellectual and emotional activities, and are  not highly correlated. What is no less important is that research prowess is valued within the system vastly more than is teaching excellence, partly because more money comes into the university that way, and partly because it is the way for an academic to get ahead. One can be known internationally  for one’s research, but only your students know whether or not you are a good teacher — and that realisation may come some years afterwards.

In 1990 I was invited to give a lecture in England on this subject, and it was later published the Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1991. Its title tells it all: ‘How Research Came to Dominate Higher Education and What Ought to be Done About It’, and it was given pride of place in the journal, which tells you that the topic was thought to be of more than ordinary interest. And because I was then the Chairman of the Australian Research Council what I proposed was paradoxical. I thought that research had become too important (this is in 1990!) and that universities needed what I called, with a nod to the Lord Buddha, ‘The Five-Fold Path to Honour’.

Academics needed to recognise that they could be expected to contribute to five essential tasks: teaching and learning, research, scholarship (which I defined as ‘the organisation and distillation of existing knowledge’), collegial administration (‘making the place work’), and community service (‘the extension of the university to its community’). I called them essential tasks because if any were generally done badly the university would suffer. Each needed to be valued, performance needed to be measured and evaluated, and high performance celebrated and rewarded.

The best that has happened since is that teaching has received some critical attention, and awards for ‘Excellence in Teaching’ are now commonplace within the higher education system; the Prime Minister herself makes a national award. All that is good. But you have to balance it  with the way in which researchers who are successful can buy themselves out of teaching, and the absolute need for people to show research prowess if they are to be successful in appointments and promotions. I don’t want to see teaching and learning reduced to a subsidiary activity within the university and, as I made clear in my earlier post, in the long run this is a bad thing for the respect with which universities and higher education will be held within our country.

And it is the lack of real respect, I think, that allows governments simply to cut funding in a major way, secure in the knowledge that no one is going to go into battle for the universities. If it was medicine, not higher education, that was to be cut in this way, there would be a different story altogether.

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