Teaching versus research

It is well known inside the major research-led universities but perhaps less well known outside, that the status of research is far higher than that of teaching. In a university like Cambridge, appointment, tenure, promotion and general reputation are dominated by research output. It is quite possible to have a glittering career in which you produce lots of prestigious research but are a pretty useless teacher. The converse is not true.

This is primarily because the de facto mission of the world’s leading universities is research. Cambridge’s actual mission is “to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.” So education, which presumably mainly means teaching, is up there. But in the graduate part of the University research is dominant and teaching is mainly about research students so the two are fairly closely connected.

Those graduate degrees which are NOT intended to lead to further research, in the form of a PhD, include the MFin, MBA, EMBA, some law and medical courses, and vocationally driven MPhils. They are seen by many researchers as subordinate to those which do lead to research. Many academics are only interested in teaching (if at all) on the courses that lead to, or are part of, PhD programmes, because the teaching is closely related to research.

But the students who pay relatively large fees for the non-research degree programmes are the ones most sensitive to the quality of teaching. Whereas undergraduates and research students will put up with mediocre teaching, partly because they’re not paying much of the cost themselves (in the UK at least), MBA and MFin students expect value for money.

This is a dilemma which can be solved only if there are by luck enough good teachers in the pool of faculty to teach those “premium-fee” programmes. There is no guarantee of this, since new faculty hires will typically be selected mainly on research merit, not on teaching ability. Of course some people are good at both but that is a coincidence, since research and teaching require quite different skills. Teaching is a professional craft that can be taught or to some extent picked up, but it requires time and effort, which are not encouraged by an emphasis on research. Simply knowing a great deal about a subject doesn’t necessarily make you good at communicating that knowledge to others.

These bloggers (*) give one reason for research having a higher status. They argue, using economic theory, that research success is a better signal of quality because it’s harder to fake and easier to measure than teaching. I’m not sure that’s the only reason. It may also be cultural. In some countries (e.g. Finland, China) but not the UK and US, teaching is a very respected profession and teachers have high social status.

One way to solve the dilemma is to have professional teachers in the University, that is people whose job is primarily to teach and who are evaluated accordingly. They may also do research but that is a secondary activity. In some universities these are known as adjunct faculty. For better or for worse, Cambridge University has no such job category.


(*) The blog title requires explanation. It’s an old joke that the most boring headline that could appear in a newspaper would be “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” The authors of the blog have embraced this put-down with true Canadian insouciance (presumably pronounced with a Québecois accent).

7 Responses to Teaching versus research

  1. Simon,

    An interesting blog post offering a good outline of the pressures and contradictions of the UK higher education environment.

    I’d like to hear more about how you feel the value of research-active academic staff can add to the experience of MFin and MBA students in both management theory and practical terms within the business school environment.

    Are there ways in which you feel academics MIGHT be able to adapt and perform in both spheres particularly within the premium fee programme context? I’d imagine insights delivered well would be of true value, but are the wider pressures inhibiting individuals’ ability to contribute in this manner?

    What do you think makes a great teacher on MFin/MBA programmes, and how might their research influence this?

    • I’d guess that there is little correlation between the students’ teaching rating of lecturers and the ranking of lecturers by the normal research scores. Students’ ratings are not the whole story of course but it’s telling us something. As for what makes a great teacher, I don’t really know, but at a minimum I think you have to actually want to do it.

  2. well said!i totaly agree, teaching and research should not be mixed, or be evaluated in a different way.To my experience Lecturers who are into alot of different projects at the same time usually are distracted, indifferent or even bored to teach properly in class!What if Universities hire different people for teaching and research..sounds very promising and..perhaps expensive..

  3. Good to see your blog, Simon.

    My view is that you can’t contribute to society (as per the mission) without disseminating the excellent research through effective teaching to an engaged audience who will act on the research. Thus good teachers are certainly important, whether adjunct faculty or with a more balanced incentive system within universities to encourage those good at both.

    • My next blog looks further at the argument that good research naturally supports good teaching. I don’t think that’s generally true. Many brilliant and influential teachers are passing on other people’s work, not their own research. And that’s fine, it seems to me. A good teacher need not be a good researcher, though it probably helps.

  4. Yup same happening in Pakistan as well, get a PhD and do research otherwise leave the teaching job. 🙁

  5. Hi Simon

    Interesting comment about having professional teachers. I agree with you, but wouldn’t Universities loathe to do this because it increased head count (thereby reducing publications per person)?

    Also in regard to adjunct faculty, I don’t know how it works in the UK, but in Australia adjuncts are paid casually. So it is possible for adjunct faculty member Simon Taylor works for Cambridge, Oxford and XYZ ordinary college (that pays him very well). I am not sure how well top level universities would take it having adjuncts associated with both themselves and “lower level” educational institutions

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