Rebalancing research and teaching in universities

Too many higher education institutions prioritize research over teaching, especially the more prestigious research-intensive universities. Yet the goal of a university should be a balanced combination of knowledge creation and education. Below are four viable approaches for universities to rebalance efforts towards research and teaching, improving the quality of both:

1. Recognition of teaching through explicit institutional benchmarks

Larger structural incentives in higher education focus on outstanding research, which means teaching is too often seen as an afterthought. While research is globally celebrated through highly visible awards and initiatives, recognition of teaching is generally confined to individual institutions. And while teaching quality is discussed as a matter of formality, its inclusion in academic goals and official documents often takes the form of easy, generic slogans that mean very little.

It is essential to agree on defined measures to define high quality teaching within and between institutions. Teaching excellence should be broken down with explicit and concrete benchmarks, accompanied by detailed illustrations and examples, to support the professional development of staff. Setting clear goals allows performance and quality of teaching to be monitored and evaluated, which will appeal institutions focused on metrics and auditing. It helps to solve the difficulties of benchmarking teaching across disciplines, subjects and teaching styles, especially when students have diverse needs and qualities.

2. Prioritization of teaching in promotion and tenure

Academics are not always clear about what their institutions expect of them in terms of teaching and learning outcomes. Teaching and learning is usually mentioned in recruitment and promotion criteria, but under the guise of a low-key activity that complements research, which does nothing to break the myth that teaching is less important. It sends a message to busy academics that teaching should not be a priority. JEach quality needs to be emphasized much more in tenure and promotion opportunities for academics. Clear incentives will increase the motivation of academics to focus on teaching efforts.

3. Transformation of reward systems and practices

Teaching is further pushed to the margins by the awarding of grants and research funding by accrediting bodies and governments, which pressure academics to maintain top research marks or risk losing against their competitors. Publication pressure encourages academics to minimize teaching in order to focus on publishing more articles or research papers that build their profiles and careers.

Research assessments and funding applications generally require scholars to demonstrate an original and significant contribution of their projects to knowledge. Funding is primarily based on research results and not on learning outcomes. Existing reward systems should take steps to recognize effective integration of teaching and research, and scholars should be better rewarded if their teaching is shown to be research-based or research-led.

4. Encourage the seamless integration of teaching and research

Academics should be further encouraged to link their teaching and research efforts. When applying for positions within universities, they should be invited to show how their research impacts their teaching delivery, curriculum development and other forms of engagement. This shifts the focus from research output as a marker of success to the research process and how scholars engage with it in all aspects of their work, even if they are not constantly publishing.

Institutions should make more of an effort to evaluate scholars based on the holistic range of activities they perform on a daily basis within the university, rather than using preconceived standards such as research parameters for the oversight and accountability. This would allow academics to focus on the quality of day-to-day work – be it teaching, research, supervision, managing diversity and inclusion initiatives or anything else – rather than static numbers on a checklist. This, in turn, facilitates potential synergies between teaching and research, giving scholars the space to find effective ways to link their work. Academics who successfully integrate teaching and research should be rewarded and presented as exemplary practitioners contributing to the improvement of institutional practices.

Teaching and research both work to share objective of increasing, exploiting and defending knowledge. Therefore, we need to rethink our priorities to break down long-standing cleavage between these two pillars of Higher Education.

Adrian Man-Ho Lam is a course tutor who researches and teaches the interdisciplinary core curriculum at the University of Hong Kong.

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