By Michael Edmonds 28/03/2016

Should degrees be taught mainly by research active staff?* is one of the many questions being asked in the “New models of tertiary education” issues paper released for comment in February of this year.

Looking at the various regulations currently embedded in New Zealand there appears to an assumption that degrees benefit from being taught by research active staff. For example, New Zealand’s Education Act states of universities that

“their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge”

Also, NZQA states in its Guidelines for Degree Approval and Accreditation states that

“most staff teaching on the degree programme will be engaged in research, in a field that supports the delivery of the degree programme and underpins its theoretical framework.”

However, in practice does being research active enhance one’s teaching? After all, teaching and research require very different skill sets. Or does the demand to research actually diminish the time and motivation lecturers have to commit to good teaching practice? I’m sure many of us have experienced lecturers whose teaching practice was poor due to it being a low priority in an environment where “publish or perish” dominates.

That is not to say that there aren’t excellent tertiary teachers who also do research, I have met some excellent lecturers who excel as both educators and researchers, but if we were to ask them I suspect many will say they have to work extremely hard to do both, and perhaps if they had the chance they would prefer to make a choice. In most cases I suspect they would choose research as this is where the most kudos lies in universities. The Tertiary Education Union has commented that in New Zealand “research remains king in terms of academic prestige” while an Australian commentator has stated that “teaching is still widely talked about as a kind of punishment for not being a competitive researcher.”

So is it time that these regulations were changed to allow staff who enjoy and excel at teaching to take on a greater teaching role, and to free up those who excel at research to do research while still supporting those that can do both?

I’m sure there are many readers and contributors here who have experienced both sides of this – as lecturers deciding where to put their energies, or as students dealing with uninterested lecturers? Perhaps some institutions have dealt with this by employing teaching only staff? I would be interested in finding out how this works. My impression is that such roles are typically fixed term and given lower status compared to research active staff?

What would be the benefits if we disconnected teaching from research? For one, assuming we got the resourcing right, I suspect we could reduce the number of students who dropped out of university.



* Note for the purpose of this blog I have simplified the actual question from the paper which states

“What are the benefits and disadvantages, in terms of students’ learning outcomes, of bundling together research and teaching at universities in New Zealand?”

Featured image: Flickr CC, Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff.

0 Responses to “Should degrees be taught mainly by research active staff?”

  • We have ‘teaching fellows’ – teaching-only; 4-year fixed-term contract.

    Had this discussion the other day, regarding first-year teaching. Personally I think the best teachers we have should teach at this level, regardless of what their research field is or their level of activity in that area. This opinion is not universally shared.

    • Hi Alison

      Thanks for that, I wonder what the reason is behind these positions being fixed term contracts? Is it the same for research staff?
      I agree, the best teachers should be the ones teaching at first year level. However, if teaching is treated as less important than research that does provide a dilemma for those who are good at both. Also, for those who are poor teachers, is there any incentive to improve their teaching (e.g. gain teaching qualifications) or is that considered to get in the way of research?

  • I think there remains, within universities, a lot of resistance to recognising and rewarding good teaching. In my experience, what tends to happen is that if you are an excellent “teacher”, then your teaching load creeps up. The best teachers, however interested in they are in research, end up with high teaching loads (and because they put in higher than average effort this inflates the burden). It is rarely possible to be an excellent researcher and teacher. There’s only so many hours in a week and hours spent on student assistance, is hours that are not spent on research. As so much status (and promotions) revolve around research as opposed to teaching, being a good teacher is a very effective way to damage your promotion track.

    We don’t recognise good teachers in the same way we recognise good researchers. I think rather than create a tier of academics who do mostly or only, teaching, we need to reward good teachers. If you want good teachers at universities, there has to be incentives to be good teachers. I’m afraid that at the moment, becoming a ‘good’ teacher is an effective way to forgo thousands of dollars in income. Being an excellent researcher with a mediocre teaching record, is better that than being an excellent teacher with a mediocre research record.

  • Hi Michael
    There is a lot more to this than just teaching vs research. Firstly it depends on the type of education institution you are talking about, the type of courses and the level of the courses (level 5, 6, 7 or 8 +).
    Then it depends on the background of the tutor/teacher – have they only been in education -degree then masters, Ph.D. then teaching?
    If that is the case ten their only way to stay current is to keep on researching their area of expertise. In most cases they are given plenty of time to do this even if there is pressure to publish. As well as this they are well resourced with support staff and facilities.
    This produces (hopefully) very experienced professors but not necessarily good communicators of that knowledge.
    The best professors I know have all had outside employment or owned their own company (or part there of). They are living their technology and can usually convey it to others well.
    In secondary schools the teachers are well trained as teachers and are mainly required to deliver the syllabus and most research they do is on methods of education not the content as this is set for them.
    Other tertiary institutions (not Universities) find themselves somewhere between secondary schools and universities when it comes to teaching and research. They want to be seen to be like universities (and are required to) when it comes to research but the government funding model of PRBF is heavily weighted against them in favour or universities and the mostly theoretical nature of the published outputs.
    The “non universities ” generally do much more applied research but, due to poor funding, struggle to get great outcomes that are suitably peer reviewed which further impacts the funding.
    This is why many of the “research ” outputs tend towards teaching methods which are cheaper on resources and much easier to get published and reviewed. This is counter productive as it does not further the tutors knowledge in the field they are meant to be teaching. This is also contrary to the intent of the NZQA and other organisations that ratify the degrees (mainly) and diplomas when they specify the tutors should be research active.
    Tutors or teachers who have industry experience are more likely to do research if they are allowed time for it especially if it is recent experience. The longer they are out of their industry the less likely they are to want to do it.
    On top of all that the time available for research is minimal and there are many other calls on the time of dedicated tutors as has been mentioned previously.
    In all education institutions there are teachers, tutors and professors that are “cruising ” and do the bare minimum to collect their pay check but there are others that will always go way beyond what is required because they are dedicated to their students, their technology and their job.
    The problem comes when you try to force some to do research or stop doing research.
    All tutors at tertiary level must keep up with their knowledge base in their specialist area.
    At university the range of subjects taught by individuals is generally narrow whereas the secondary teachers can have a wider range to teach. Tertiary “non universities” quite often have a diverse range to cover as well with more requirement to stay current and much less time to do it.
    With pressure to be more economic and do more with less there is likely to be a reduction in staff (tutors and support staff) which will impact across all education institutions.
    In summary then I feel that it is essential for appropriate research to be done in all tertiary institutions. If not then an equivalent amount of time and resources must be made available to keep teaching staff current