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Is university research good for teaching?

Australian higher education is dominated by its universities, and therefore by institutions that have dual teaching and research missions. There is a long debate about whether these two activities complement…

A new report shows that universities that conduct a large amount of research aren’t necessarily better at teaching. Lecture image from www.shutterstock.com

Australian higher education is dominated by its universities, and therefore by institutions that have dual teaching and research missions. There is a long debate about whether these two activities complement or contradict each other.

Many believe in a “teaching-research nexus” – that is, ways in which an academic’s research can inform their teaching and vice-versa.

Among the suggested benefits are more opportunities for students to engage with research findings and literature, academics sharing their enthusiasm for research through their teaching, and students collaborating with academics on research projects.

While these benefits are plausible, there are also potential disadvantages. We know that academics tend to prefer research to teaching, and think that research rather than teaching is rewarded in promotion. With only a limited number of hours in the day, it would not be surprising to find that academics favour their research over their teaching.

The limited Australian empirical evidence supports a sceptical view of how research affects teaching. One study found that students at universities with high research ratings tended to be less satisfied with teaching. However, these students also had better employment outcomes.

A new Grattan Institute report released yesterday provides a new empirical analysis of the teaching-research relationship. “Taking university teaching seriously” uses 66 questions from the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) and the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) to compare various aspects of the student experience in high and low research environments. The level of research in the 22 disciplines included in the analysis was principally determined using Australian Research Council ratings.

The study took into account various factors other than research that might affect student responses to surveys. These included the student’s age, gender, and citizenship. Whether the student studied part or full time and whether they lived on or off campus was also controlled for in the statistical analysis. The surveys do not ask about Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), but the median ATAR for their university and discipline was included as an indicator of prior academic performance.

Overall, the level of research activity does not seem to have a major influence on the student experience in Australian universities. In more than two-thirds of results, there was no statistically significant difference between the high and low research groups. They mostly gave very similar responses to the AUSSE and CEQ questions.

Student survey results comparing high and low research environments Grattan Institute analysis.

Examining results for particular questions gives some nuance to the general finding of little difference between the high and low research groups.

Students in low research environments were more likely to agree that they received prompt feedback on their work. That provides some support for the hypothesis that academics doing less research have more time to spend on students. However, other time-use results found no difference between the high and low research groups.

Students in high research environments gave more favourable responses to questions about studying with others. They were also more likely to self-report improvement in their skills.

These results could mean that academics in high-research departments are more aware of pedagogical research into peer learning, and do a better job improving their students' skills.

However, it is also possible that these results reflect characteristics of the students who typically attend high-research universities. Students from high socioeconomic backgrounds may have the time, confidence and networks to do well on the questions where their universities come out ahead. This theory could not be assessed on the available data.

Either way, we are left with an inconclusive result on the effect of research. The AUSSE and CEQ suggest that teaching quality in Australia’s universities is patchy. But research activity in itself is not a major explanatory factor.

The more likely cause is that Australian universities have similar approaches to teaching, which leave many teaching staff without the skills they need. All universities are more likely to hire academics for their research than their teaching ability. They are all more likely to promote academics to senior positions based on research rather than teaching performance. They are all happy for temporary staff to do much of the teaching.

This is a common culture across Australia’s universities, whether they score highly in research ratings or not.

Fortunately, universities generally accept the need for improved teaching. Some are creating new teaching-focused roles that emphasise teaching skills and development, but these positions are often still seen as of lower-status than research positions.

To help speed along the process of recognising and professionalising teaching, “Taking university teaching seriously” recommends a government program to support an expansion of teaching-focused academic jobs.

As Australian universities take increasing numbers of academically under-prepared students, we should not leave their education to teams of casual staff and over-worked researchers. We need skilled teaching professionals to give all students a chance to succeed in higher education.