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New report explores the relationship between teaching and research in UK universities, and why it matters

  • 20 July 2023

The Higher Education Policy Institute is publishing a new report, The relationship between teaching and research in UK universities – what is it and does it matter? (HEPI Report 162)written by Nicola Dandridge, Professor of Practice at the University of Bristol and former Chief Executive of the Office for Students

The paper considers the different approaches taken by higher education institutions, students, academics and policymakers towards the relationship between teaching and research, noting how frequently the concept of research-informed teaching is invoked, yet how obscurely it is implemented. The relationship appears to mean different things to different people – and administrations of all political complexions seem to be unconvinced by its value. 

The HEPI Report explores the ways in which the relationship between teaching and research can add significant value and have a transformative impact on students. It also notes examples where there is in practice no obvious relationship between the two activities, and where from students’ perspectives there does not need to be.

The report finishes by asking whether it matters that the relationship is contested and sometimes opaque, and concludes that it does matter, at least in some respects:

  • References to research-informed teaching are frequently invoked but may not always translate into reality for many students. This can be misleading for students, can imply a hierarchy of research over teaching, and obscure a proper focus on teaching quality. It can also undermine the many outstanding examples of research-informed teaching that do exist across the sector.
  • The two activities of teaching and research are becoming increasingly separated within and between universities. This may mean that many students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will experience their undergraduate education without being exposed to research activity. For many students this will not matter, but for others it will and could lead to their being less likely to see further study as an option when they graduate, which could affect their future careers as well as impact on the demographic of the academic workforce.
  • Separation of the two activities also impacts on the career progression and academic identity of academic staff, particularly if teaching is perceived as having lesser status than research. 
  • Without a compelling narrative, governments will continue to be unpersuaded about the value of the relationship, and this will affect government policy – to the potential detriment of important political, social and industrial objectives. 

Nicola Dandridge, author of the report, said:

Teaching and research are at the heart of what universities do, and our UK higher education system is outstandingly strong in both its teaching and its research. But the nature of the relationship between the two is often not clear. At one level this might not matter, providing both are done well and achieve their (separate) objectives. But at another level it does matter – affecting transparency of communications with students, the status of teaching within universities, academic careers, and the achievement of broader social and political objectives. In particular, it ignores the transformational potential that teaching and research together can generate.

This report is based on desk-based research, and does no more than scratch the surface of a highly complex set of issues. But I hope that it does at least provoke a discussion about topics that are fundamental to our sector, and which deserve more scrutiny than they currently receive.

The Rt Hon. the Lord David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014 and a Board member of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said:

This is a valuable analysis of the relationship between teaching and research in universities. It shows it is possible to deliver high-quality teaching without necessarily doing research as well. Nevertheless, there are links between them and the report ends with a useful warning of the risks of a policy framework which does not look at them together.

Martha Longdon, who is studying for a PhD and who was previously President of Nottingham Trent Students’ Union as well as a board member and Chair of the Office for Students’ Student Panel, said:

Research-informed teaching, in all its forms, inspires students’ curiosity and prepares them for a wide variety of career paths and research opportunities. However, it is hampered by the ongoing administrative and philosophical separation of research and teaching in the higher education sector. This paper asks important questions as to how we can articulate and begin to redress the relationship between research and teaching, to provide students with access to emerging ideas and technologies and empower them to develop their own inquiry-based learning. Research-informed teaching, within and beyond universities, is of benefit to all, but particularly students.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.
  2. Nicola Dandridge is currently undertaking a further research project, interviewing leaders from across the sector to understand their views on the relationship between teaching and research within their institutions.


  1. Tom Cannon says:

    I’ve never fully understood why research informed teaching gains such overwhelming precedence over teaching informed research. I’d hate to think it is because those being taught are tougher and more challenging , raising more perceptive questions to answer than the tiny numbers selected as reviewers, from increasingly narrow, cosy and peripheral fields as the Journal moves up the star ranking

  2. roger brown (professor) says:

    Not only because I am quoted in the report but also because in the early 2000s I chaired a national group exploring the research-teaching relationship, I should like to offer one or two comments on this useful piece.
    First, there is always a need for a comparative perspective. Historically, research did not become a widespread university activity until after the Second World War. Even as late as the 1950s, the Oxford Professor of History described the PhD as ‘an ungentlemanly pursuit’. Geographically, there are still university systems – France, Germany – where much research is done outside universities, although this is changing as a result of Anglophone influences. So there is nothing inevitable about universities doing research.
    Second, I agree with the report that our universities have been poor at making the links and explaining them. Ironically, the group’s work suggested that it was often the less ‘research-intensive’ institutions that were better at making the link, my own former institution being a case in point. This may have been because teaching was clearly our main mission but it may also have reflected our desire to make our much more limited research effort really count.
    However, there is absolutely no chance of a Government (or its agencies) that sees teaching and research as industrial products – where the student is the main consumer of teaching and the Government as the main consumer of research – agreeing that they – and even more the linkages between them – should be assessed by anything other than essentially commercial criteria. Even so, it would be good if the sector made a stronger effort to persuade them.

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