So, is research bad for education?

Those working in universities regularly come up against the question whether it is possible to balance teaching and research so that both are valued and neither undermines the other. A recent contributor to the debate on this issue, the Washington Post higher education reporter Daniel de Visé, had this to say:

‘Whether we intend it or not, the university serves scholarship and scholars before students. Students at traditional universities get significant consideration, but it isn’t responding to their needs that makes these institutions expensive relative to for-profit universities and community colleges. The traditional summer break is a leading example of per-student costs being driven up by faculty preference. Another is the time and money spent in research, much of which adds little to the quality of student learning while raising its effective cost. The scholarly view of knowledge, though valuable in its realm, also creates an implicit cost to the majority of students: Because many courses and majors are designed primarily to prepare students for graduate study in the same field, students headed to professional school or directly in the workplace may finish college under-prepared.’

This issue is important for all sorts of reasons. First, it is all about what constitutes a ‘university’; more particularly, it is the question whether all universities need to host high quality research programmes, or whether teaching-only institutions can also be recognised as good universities. Secondly, there is the issue of higher education pedagogy: should students be exposed to experienced researchers in their studies, or does this not matter? On the other hand, there are the really complex issues to do with academic career development, and whether promotion in the end is always determined by research output; and if it is, whether careers are therefore pursued at the expense of students? And finally, there are questions about whether research organisation and funding take up too much institutional energy and time, as some argue.

In some countries the approach to higher education research has defined institutional hierarchies, with research-intensive institutions being promoted as premier league universities, while other, largely teaching-oriented, institutions are seen as second tier. Daniel de Visé may argue that the focus on research short-changes the students, but then again, ambitious students always make research-intensive universities their first choice, because the research under-pins the institutional status and reputation.

The answer to all of this probably is that in order to be recognised as an academically significant institution, a university must have a good deal of high value research. However, that does not mean that it needs to be pursued in exactly the same way in each place. Some universities, with age, traditions and resources, may opt for an all-round research profile; but actually very few can afford to do this well. Most should find their own specialist areas or niches in which they wish to excel and which they prioritise, and in which they intend to compete with the best  in the world. Such areas should typically be interdisciplinary. But all should recognise the pedagogical value of the pursuit of discovery and analysis, and the need to bring this close to the student. And seen in that way, research is certainly not bad for education.

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15 Comments on “So, is research bad for education?”

  1. I quit working a a TA and causal lecture at my local uni when it was made clear that funding (for research) came before student learning. For the first time in the 10 years of a 3rd year stats course, all students passed.

    The feedback from students was high satisfaction and relief that they were finally ‘getting it’. Feedback from senior staff was that I was jepordising funding by providing learning workshops.

    So not psychology, or student-focused pedagogy. The potential for research programs in this area were of no interest either.

  2. Al Says:

    Surely the student is also working towards being capable of carrying out research in an eventually independent role…
    To achieve this, academics capable of this independent research (going from being told to being able to find out) should guide them, because the student should be in touch with this activity through contact with their lecturers and these same lecturers in order to get the students past dependance need to practise research also.

  3. Vince Says:

    How precisely will cutting-edge research matter to a student doing a course set five or more years ago. Will standing outside the Tower magic Cullinan 2 like a bindy. Granted, were students used to help the endeavour. But since they aren’t what earthly difference can it make who schools them, or where.

  4. aiecquest Says:

    Like Gutenburg revolutionised communication of ideas, universities have been required as physical repositories of knowledge and resources. Digital has taken further whereby researchers do not need to be in universities but can now be out in the “field” while universities, colleges etc. can focus upon teaching, but old habits die hard……. my reply to researchers etc. who demand universities look after them is that they should join a monastery….. the original university.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      ‘they should join a monastery’ Lol that is a good one! Btw I happen to believe that if I am a decent reseacher it’s only because I am a decent teacher and vice versa…the fact that research is not bad for education is one of the few ‘truths’ I hold dear!

  5. Fact-checker Says:

    The extensive quote you offer is not written by the reporter De Vise, in whose regular column it appears, but rather by the “guest authors” of that particular entry, namely the business guru and professor Christensen, and the university administrator Eyring. They recently wrote a whole book on a view of the future of higher education.

  6. Rab Says:

    I’m with Anna Notaro on this. My research underpins my teaching and I want to teach because I’m excited by the area I research in and want to share the ideas. But here’s the problem (as I see it): I am often teaching students who do not share my enthusiasm for discovery in the field. They want vocational skills and they want me to tell them what to think, not how to think. I deeply regret this because they’re missing a great opportunity to become independent adult learners instead of pupils.

    I have to confess I’m frustrated by students who come to university and expect that it will be an extension of secondary education. Why would it be that? If you don’t want to be in an environment where research and discovery are important then stay away. There are other educational options available for you.

    I haven’t been in higher education long, so I wonder is the ‘teaching versus research’ debate a new one? From older colleagues I get the feeling that they are surprised by it. They ask (and so do I if I’m honest): what is a university if it doesn’t do research? If this is a relatively recent debate, then we might ask why we’re having it now.

    Could it be that it has arisen because young people, many of whom are disinterested in what HE offers are being corralled into university as if it is an extension of school?

    • kevin denny Says:

      I would be astonished if it is a new debate, it is certainly not new to me and I have been in the business awhile. Many academics don’t feel as you do: teaching is regarded as a chore to be avoided at all costs.
      While it is a rather cynical, perhaps odious view, it is the case that there may be simply no connection between one’s teaching and one’s research. For example if you teach principles (ie. 1st year) of economics it is so basic as to have no bearing on my research. I am sure that it is true of other disciplines. This is no excuse for not taking it very seriously though.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        I have often heard the example of the 1st year teaching being so basic that it has no bearing on the lecturer’s research, that might be technically the case, still I believe that the students’ learning experience can be enhanced if the lecturer is also an active researcher even when the teaching is at its most basic.

        • kevin denny Says:

          There may well be a benefit to the student but I think the direct benefit to the lecturer of such teaching is pretty limited. It probably depends on how quickly the core of one’s subject changes. You could imagine periods of rapid change, say in physics early in the last century, when it would be important for the instructor to keep up to speed with research.

    • Rab~ I too find it disappointing when learners are focused on ‘tell me what to think’ and not excited by the opportunity to learn how to think independently. However, I found the overall academic culture in my School promoting this way of navigating studies, to learn for the exam or points on an assignment. Where research was promoted as separate to being a practitioner, despite the literature promoting a researcher-practitioner graduate. It’s so back the front, to promote research as an elite state (as it is done by some) but to discourage thinking outside of the square and curiousness and excitement for learning, the foundation of science.

  7. The structural challenge for individual universities, especially smaller ones, is to resource and promote their chosen specialist/niche research areas without alienating those who can’t be involved. Interdisciplinarity is lovely but can be difficult to scale without lapsing into generalisation.

    So we end up with a divisive situation where resources are focused on a limited number of researchers while their colleagues in other disciplines (particularly those with strong vocational alignment that might be attractive to students) slide further and further into substantive teaching roles. Among other things, this severely impairs career mobility for some while fuelling others, so institutions are faced with having to pay more and more attract-and-retain bonuses to hang on to their researchers, while the teachers get stuck where they are. Lose-lose.

    The strategy might be to figure out how the benefits associated with research practice—creative engagement with the discipline, collaboration, experimentation, career opportunity—are equally afforded by the practice of teaching. This suggests that the most successful research institutions will also be those that provide sustained institutional support to the most creative, properly resourced and innovative approaches to teaching.

  8. Alan.carr Says:

    Isn’t the crux of this the question of who should pay for it?
    Should the researcher/ lecturer be paid for it?
    Should the students have to pay for it?

  9. In a way it is really amusing to see so much “opinion” offered in reply to this question. In my opinion, activity in research seems to be negatively correlated with teaching ability. However, that is based on my own personal observations and is of little value. Surely this is a question we should try to resolve by referring to the the research that has been done on the topic.

  10. foleyg Says:

    The whole interaction between research and teaching is interesting and there have been very few studies of the relationship. The usual argumnet is that you have to be research active to be a good UNiversity teacher. Here’s an interesting article byon this topic by Felder, the ‘god’ of chemical engineering education:

    The challenge for a University is attain excellence in both research and teaching and maybe not everybody should do both activities. That would be a shame I think. A key point though is that good teaching should be rewarded in the same way as good research is.

    By the way, my blog is at

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