On my first day as a Lecturer in a particular Dublin university in October 1980, I was called to the office of my Head of Department, Professor Charles McCarthy, and he gave me the following advice which stayed with me throughout my professional life. The only way to have a satisfying and successful academic career, he suggested, was to be both a passionate teacher and a dedicated researcher. ‘Go and teach your students as if the country’s future depended on it – which it does – and then go and publish as much research as possible. And never lose sight of either of those tasks.’ It was excellent advice.
Of course in those days it was also quite unusual advice. Research had not become the essential academic activity it now is, and I would guess that in my Faculty back then barely a quarter of staff would have been doing anything we would count as research, and the proportion of those whose research output would have made an impact in today’s research assessment culture would have been even smaller. Nowadays it is all different, and research has become a core activity in universities, and individual academic performance in this context is key to a number of things, including career progression.
So has all this gone too far? The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) think so. In their submission to the steering group undertaking the higher education strategic review, the union suggested the following.
‘The evidence that the teaching role of academics has been undermined is incontrovertible. Academics are increasingly diverted away from the teaching of undergraduates towards the pursuit of research grants and the knowledge economy. There is no doubt that academic teaching benefits from research and we are not arguing for teaching-only academics. However, it is easy to demonstrate how the universities discourage engagement with teaching. This can be seen in the patterns of appointments, the terms of promotion schemes, the rewards and recognition systems. It is made abundantly clear to young staff that teaching is a necessary but somewhat irrelevant activity: not worthy of investment. Older staff, with a commitment to teaching, find themselves increasingly harassed for a failure to join the new world of high level research. Naturally, this view will never appear in an official document from any university. However, we work in the universities and we know.’
I would have to say that while there are issues raised in this extract that merit attention, the argument is over-stated to an extent that weakens its impact. I do not believe that any university officer (including a Department Head) has ever suggested to a young lecturer that teaching is ‘irrelevant’, or ‘not worthy of investment’. Such advice if given would not only be objectionable but also extremely silly, as teaching is crucial to a university’s funding and this is well recognised. I imagine that ‘older’ staff do get reminded (where that is necessary) of the importance of research as part of the portfolio of academic activities, and this will be done not least because all the empirical evidence suggests that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, good researchers are good teachers in higher education. Encouraging those whose careers may have begun before there were as many expectations regarding research is important not least as a way of raising the game when it comes to teaching.
But for all that, it is right to ask whether we always get the balance right. In particular, we need to ask whether we always manage to hold on successfully to what I regard as a critical principle of academic life: that all academics should be teachers and researchers, and that neither activity should be taking place in a ghetto untouched by the other. The academic vocation is about scholarship, which involves the discovery, critical assessment and dissemination of knowledge. Separating these aspects is hugely undesirable.
It will probably always be the case that there will be some – post-docs, for example, or teaching assistants – who will typically at the start of their careers for a while focus on one aspect only. But for those who become lecturers and who enter upon the full-time academic career, there should be no doubt that they should be both teachers and researchers, and they should allow each of these activities to fertilise the other. Universities in turn should organise themselvcs accordingly, so as to ensure that the balance of teaching and research is recognised and protected; NUI Galway, for example, have adopted a learning, teaching and assessment strategy which is interesting in this context. Perhaps the trickiest issue to get right here is how to reward and recognise teaching excellence in a way that encourages academics to plan their teaching as a component of career development and promotion. Some universities have put significant effort into addressing this.
Not every academic needs to pursue teaching and research in exactly equal measure, but every academic should do some of each. I still believe that the advice I was given as I began my career was correct.