This blog was written by Joanna Thornborough, Senior Policy Adviser (HE & Skills) at the British Academy.
With uncertainty surrounding the UK’s association to Horizon Europe and a resurgence of COVID-19 cases threatening to cause more chaos when terms start afresh in September, academics could be forgiven for wanting to block out all thoughts of the current state of the higher education sector.
But the summer months provide a useful chance for reflection and the British Academy has taken the opportunity to publish a new report examining one crucial aspect of the higher education sector: the balance between academics’ teaching and research activities.
The Teaching-Research Nexus summarises the findings of a long-running study into the nature and value of the relationship between teaching and research and identifies a range of possible solutions for nurturing a closer and more positive relationship between the two.
To begin, the good news is that the vast majority (94 per cent) of the academics we interviewed as part of this project agreed that there is value in a positive relationship between teaching and research. There is a clear consensus that such an extensive, visible and mutually reinforcing relationship will be essential to the future sustainability of the sector and to the prospects of achieving targets to increase research innovation and skills in the UK over the coming years. However, it is also clear that the viability of a nexus is being challenged in practice by a number of structural factors, which will come as no surprise to those who work in higher education. These include: increasing academic workloads; continued trends towards monocultural contracts for academics; and a lack of targeted funding to improve the relationship between teaching and research.
Staff survey responses from across different UK higher education institutions make clear the increasingly unfair expectations being placed on academics due to pressures to achieve excellence in both research and teaching, despite the perceived inequality in esteem with which many institutions and the sector as a whole hold both activities. This division is not only seen at institutional level but is also being compounded by the separation of funding streams and incentives for research from those for teaching; this is reflected in academic hiring and promotion practices.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has also had its impact and, as in many other sectors and areas of society, has exacerbated longstanding issues and stresses within the higher education sector. These include the precarity of many academic contracts and the continued sharp increases in teaching-only contracts, with impacts for students and for particular groups within academia. According to the academics we spoke to, an increased emphasis on teaching provision during lockdown and the rapid pivoting to online learning was not accompanied by a lessening in research demands on academics.
Original research conducted for this study has also shown that women continue to hold a greater proportion of teaching-only contracts compared to men. The proportion of Black, Asian, or Mixed Ethnicity academics on teaching-only contracts, particularly in SHAPE subjects (the Social Sciences, the Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy), increased by 148 per cent, 123 per cent and 126 per cent respectively between 2012/13 and 2019/20 (see table below). Such bifurcation of teaching (T) and research (R) potentially further entrenches inequalities that exist in academia and education more generally. It also poses problems for the future of a teaching-research (TR) nexus if only a select few are afforded the opportunity to successfully integrate teaching and research in their practice.
Despite the many challenges, we have identified opportunities for a range of sector stakeholders, from students through to government, to maximise the benefits offered by a nexus between teaching and research in practice.
- Developing more effective strategies for communicating the reciprocal relationship between teaching and research to students in higher education institutions at all levels of study, helping students to appreciate how research shapes their curricula and how this in turn may help to shape research.
- Using the concept of a nexus as a more neutral means by which all parties might approach and contextualise the issue of academic work pressures, by means of discussion of the teaching-research nexus and the ideal of the academic endeavour as fundamentally connecting teaching and research.
- Employing a broader, sector-wide approach to policy development, which engages with teaching and research balanced as well as teaching-focused institutions, rather than remaining overly reliant on the view from research-focused institutions.
The teaching-research nexus will not necessarily look the same for all academics or all institutions. It may be appropriate for some institutions to think of the nexus in terms of applied or technical education, and different department sizes and structures and different research cultures foster different relationships between teaching in terms of collaborative or individual research. What the nexus looks like in reality will therefore differ from department to department and from institution to institution, but there is value in this relationship across the board for the higher education sector and the innovation and knowledge which it brings to society.
Where academics are able to employ more of a two-way nexus, the benefit to both academics and students becomes apparent. This may seem obvious to those in the system, but our findings provide clear evidence that can be used to start discussions about policy change at institutional and structural levels. We hope you will join our call for further discussion and dialogue about this, in the spirit of creating positive change.
Action research can create the much needed nexus between teaching and research. Based on my past experience of conducting cycles of action research, collaborating and leading the Midlands group in the National Action Research Network, and then convening the Action Research Consortium at the University of Bedfordshire, I believe that action research can recursively interconnect the personal and continuous professional development of educators.