How important is teaching to the academy?
As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. So one of the curious aspects of modern higher education is that what most would still regard as its core activity, teaching, does not find its way into most of the formal metrics used to assess institutional performance. True, things like the student-staff ratio (which, mind you, is not of as much value as you might think) are used, and quality assurance provides some insights. But on the whole the assessment of teaching is fixated on process rather than content or standards.
This gap has all sorts of consequences. League tables and rankings, while suggesting all sorts of other criteria, usually end up assessing institutions on the basis of their research outputs. Career progression, even in research non-intensive institutions, has a tendency to be research-driven. Institutional (and indeed individual) reputations are built on research. You get the picture, there is a pattern.
The question that is sometimes asked in relation to this is whether a focus on research helps or damages the university’s teaching, and in particular the student experience. There are mixed views on this, but a recent Australian survey has suggested that in the most research-intensive institutions students tend to find employment more easily after graduation, but have more negative views of their learning experience.
Of course in a properly ordered system teaching and research should not be seen as rival activities. Excellent staff research provides a more informed environment for students, always provided that the leading researchers are also engaged as teachers. But most universities have not managed to convey this relationship in practice. It is now sometimes suggested that this can only be effectively remedied if teaching is subjected to peer assessment with numerical scores. At any rate unless there is some attempt to rate teaching, it will be seen as the poor relation; and that is a situation that cannot really be allowed to continue.