University Professors who "Only" Teach

By Michael Edmonds 03/11/2012

I recently came across an article discussing the idea of “teaching-only streams” in universities. The Canadian article begins by asking the question

“how can governments best meet the need to produce well-educated, global citizens in an age of significant budgetary constraint? Or, better, what methods, means and strategies will enable students to learn more yet, at the same time, cost the system less in the years to come?”

It then follows by offering a suggestion

“Three highly regarded figures in the Canadian higher education community, Ian Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, have answered this question by calling for a dramatic increase in the number of tenured university professors whose primary, if not exclusive, duty is to teach undergraduates. More emphasis on teaching, it follows, will result in greater student learning.”

The article then goes on to discuss what evidence there is in the literature to support or challenge this approach to education, for example asking if participating in research makes one a better or worse teacher (final conclusion was that there is no significant evidence  to support either position). It then goes on to discuss other issues, such as how does one effectively assess what is good teaching – course evaluations? the subsequent academic progress of students?

However, after reading the article, it seems to me that several key points are overlooked.

The first is, what is the purpose of a university? The article focuses on the idea that universities are all about teaching, whereas, research also plays a major role in what universities (currently) do. If there were a “dramatic increase in the number of tenured university professors whose primary, if not exclusive duty is to teach undergraduates” then does it not follow that this means a decrease in the number of research active staff (unless of course this were accompanied by an increase in funding – yeah right).

This would likely result in a silo’ed approach to university staffing where staff are either researchers or teachers. Some universities already have a small number of academic staff who “only” do teaching and my impression is that these staff are often less well paid and treated than those involved in research.

The quality of teaching in the tertiary sector is something I have a great interest in. During my university days I had lecturers with a wide range of teaching styles stretching from excellent through to mediocre and some who were downright appalling. Unfortunately many of them, particularly at undergraduate level seemed to fall into the last two categories! (But that was over 20 years ago so hopefully things have changed since then).

Sometimes poor teaching styles have been blamed on the fact that some lecturers are so focused on their research that do do not invest enough time or effort in their teaching. While this is probably true in some cases, I think more often it is because they have not been taught HOW to teach. They may be experts in the content, but not in the delivery of such material in ways that will help teachers learn. Even those who are naturally good teachers will usually benefit by some training in how teach.

My view on how things should work in the tertiary sector, is that lecturers should be appointed based on the needs of the institution, and with proper consideration of what their strengths are. Those who excel at research should have positions which are largely research, perhaps providing lectures only at a more advanced level. Those whose skills lie in teaching should be provided with a career pathway where “only” teaching receives the same respect and remuneration as research. And for those who show an aptitude for both then a mix of teaching and research would be available. And all those involved in teaching should undergo some sort of training to maximize their effectiveness.

No doubt, this suggestion might be consider naive by some, particularly when university research is considered important in terms of funding (e.g. PBRF) and institutional kudos (e.g. international ranking of universities), however, this needs to be balanced by the fact that universities are also educational institutions and a good education is not served by surly lecturers who would rather be elsewhere or by those who have no understanding of how to teach.




0 Responses to “University Professors who "Only" Teach”

  • the 1989 Education Act is relevant as it talks of the special nature of universities, particularly the close interdependence of research and teaching. This may be compromised by teacher only positions (having said that I wonder what an audit of the “interdependence” would uncover.
    (4)In recommending to the Governor-General under subsection (2) that a body should be established as a college of education, a polytechnic, a specialist college, a university, or a wananga, the Minister shall take into account—
    (a)that universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:
    (i)they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:
    (ii)their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:
    (iii)they meet international standards of research and teaching:
    (iv)they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:
    (v)they accept a role as critic and conscience of society; and
    (i)a college of education is characterised by teaching and research required for the pre-school, compulsory and post-compulsory sectors of education, and for associated social and educational service roles:
    (ii)a polytechnic is characterised by a wide diversity of continuing education, including vocational training, that contributes to the maintenance, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge and expertise and promotes community learning, and by research, particularly applied and technological research, that aids development:
    (iia)a specialist college is characterised by teaching and (if relevant) research of a specialist nature that maintains, enhances, disseminates, and assists in the application of knowledge and expertise:
    (iii)a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning:
    (iv)a wananga is characterised by teaching and research that maintains, advances, and disseminates knowledge and develops intellectual independence, and assists the application of knowledge regarding ahuatanga Maori (Maori tradition) according to tikanga Maori (Maori custom).

    • John,

      I think an audit of the interdependence would be very interesting.

  • Thanks Michael, this is a very important issue.
    Three key factors here are:
    -the huge rise in participation rates in the last 20-30 years, now close to 50 %. Our rate is 4th highest in the OECD.This means there a lot more students of lesser ability sitting in undergraduate classes.
    -the large numbers of students opting for subjects which are inherently less research-intensive (so the boundary of knowledge moves less rapidly)
    – large numbers of overseas students, many of whom are not fluent in English.
    Those factors give us a clue as to what successive governments believe ‘universities are for’.
    It seems to me that under these circumstances teaching excellence becomes ever more important.
    However, the TES global university ranking rates all the NZ universities poorly on the teaching measure. In every case they rate worse for teaching than for all other attributes.
    So we seem to have a disconnect in the system.

  • [Quick note to put it here, lest I never find time to elaborate.] One thing I’ve voiced occasionally (e.g. on my blog) is the idea of teaching-only positions just for (some of) the first year courses.

  • Way back when I was at Massey we had a couple of such positions on the books, but they were a rarity (&, I suspect, no longer exist). The nature of the current uni funding regime is such that all academic staff are expected to do both teaching & research; part of the government funding we receive is tied to PBRF outcomes & so ‘research-inactive’ (R) is an uncomfortable label to wear.

  • I know of a couple of universities where they have staff with PhD’s in science education co-ordinating undergraduate programs. I think this is a great idea, having someone who understands education having a substantial input at undergraduate level.
    Though I think one of the issues they experience is a “superior attitude” from some research active lecturers, which I find frustrating.

  • Given the things that universities are expected to do, and the students who turn up (see my earlier comment), I should have thought that all universities would have a happy mixture of research-only, research-teaching, and teaching-only staff.
    The PBRF has caused some unfortunate tensions by overemphasising the research role of the universities. The PBRF is the work of the devil.

  • Kemo sabe,

    Your point about the percentage of NZers attending university and the level of ability this entails is a good one. I sometimes think it is a bit silly that there a people who cgo to uni and perform rather average then move into a rather average job when there are other options, for example, those with a practical bent can make plenty of money in the trades and potentially enjoy themselves more.
    I think some sort of co-ordination between polytechs/universities and other tertiary institutions would be quite useful for guiding students into satisfying career paths which will also help NZ grow.
    (disclaimer – I do work for a polytechnic so there may be some bias in my views).
    The other area where I tihnk NZ falls down is that many schools do not provide good career advice to students – they do not receive the resources to do so

  • Michael
    Yes. Unfortunately the growth in degree course enrolments has stigmatised those who take ‘lesser’ qualifications.
    The latest ‘Skills’ chapter of the Business Growth Agenda has, as one of its (few) action points, an improvement in careers advice. But there is a lot of prejudice to overcome, and the advice given by student-hungry universities is often contrary to good sense.

  • Though I think one of the issues they experience is a “superior attitude” from some research active lecturers, which I find frustrating.
    Don’t forget that those PhDs in science education will also be research-active. It’s just that their research will be in the field of science education; from personal experience I can regretfully confirm that the ‘superior attitude’ applies to this as well.

    Kemo Sabe, you are quite right; the PBRF has had quite a distorting effect.