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).