Has the emphasis on research and REF damaged the teaching and support for students by front-line academic staff?
"Your teaching is trivial, anyone can do it”.
After 35 years of academic life as a scientist teaching Microbiology and Biochemistry in a Russell Group university, this is exactly what a ‘senior’ manager told me as I negotiated my ‘smooth’ career exit when I decided to retire early. I left at the end of 2016 after spending a year working part-time whilst winding down my research group. I offered to continue with some teaching over that time simply to help out colleagues. But that was the response to my offer and my teaching ended more abruptly than expected in the summer of 2015.
How had things come to this?
The remark was probably a careless throw away comment but it was made by someone more ‘senior’ to me who had comparatively little experience of teaching undergraduate students. It betrayed an attitude that had been gaining ground for some time. I wondered how things could have come to such an extraordinarily perverse state. I had consistently received very good feedback from students over my whole career and they, along with many colleagues, seemed to appreciate I had worked hard to maintain a high standard. Despite running a sizeable and successful research group for many years, I remained committed to teaching as very high priority. I had attracted millions of pounds (and euros) for research from multiple sources. When I left, I was leading an EU funded project of almost €4 million and still had several active international collaborations. But it turned out that this aspect of my work was more important than the “trivial” matter of my teaching. I had heard the senior management refer often to “sweating the assets”. There seemed to be a policy of making successful researchers work harder at getting more income for the university. This would necessarily be at the expense of taking less time and care in their teaching. The simple lesson of Aesop's Fable 'The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs' seemed to have eluded them for some reason.
Why is it always a teaching ‘load’ or ‘burden’?
The result was teaching being ‘trivialised’ in general; especially the essential role of experienced researchers teaching undergraduate students. This arose from the false premise that they might successfully hire relatively inexperienced teaching staff on short-term contracts to fill gaps left by experienced research active staff who were diverted to income generation. This idea did not stop at research funding directly but extended to the indirect financial benefits of producing 3* and 4* research papers measured by the REF process. The papers might simply be thought of as ‘printing cash’ to spend in the years leading up to the next REF. The idea of hiring research professors who did little or no teaching took hold as a result. This was not confined to my own university. Several stints as an external examiner at other universities revealed similar trends. The pressures exerted on academic staff by management in relation to REF were widespread. More spoke in negative terms such as 'teaching load' or 'teaching burden'. They even did this in front of students as if it was not their concern. The life-blood of the university, its students, became a threat if research was not judged to be good enough. The saving grace for students was that most of my colleagues unstintingly stuck to the task of teaching and supporting students despite the pressures. They are the unsung heroes who carry their departments at times when research prestige dominates. However, other so called ‘research leaders’ often indulged in perfunctory lectures that bamboozled the students whilst some secured 'research-only contracts or arrangements' and avoided students entirely. Yet there were many academics who were successful researchers and opted to drive teaching forward regardless. Some were extraordinary in their efforts and students appreciated them more. Those not teaching, or trying to avoid it, missed the point of the essential relationship between teaching and research.
The relationship between teaching and research.
The synergy between the teaching endeavour and developing complex research ideas seems a natural one to me. Having to distil down complex concepts about how nature works and then to deliver an explanation to students, especially first year students, concentrates the mind wonderfully. It broadens the horizons and places more focused research projects in a wider context. The simple upside to this is that I became better at explaining ideas about biochemical mechanisms in nature in clearer terms. This included my research presentations and publications. More importantly, for the managers, I was better at setting out a research proposal more clearly to secure funding. However, I never met one who got this as an idea.
But time became the limiting factor.
The root of the problem of finding time lies partly in the expansion of student numbers. The time demands started to rise along with increases in organisational complexity. I started teaching first year students Microbiology in 1980, when there were exactly sixty in that particular class. In 2015 there were 322 students in a similar class. In the intervening time I have taught just short of 9,000 (8,484) students and developed 19 different courses at all levels. The steady rise in student numbers over that time increased the time demands inexorably. The figure below shows the trend for me. Inevitably, my contact time with the students declined as a result.
For the first year Microbiology course (one of three equivalent courses provided in the same semester) the contact time declined from 10 hours per week to 6 hours and then 5 hours per week. This time was divided between lectures, practical classes and tutorials. All other courses suffered the same decline and the expectation was to continue to maintain the same intellectual challenge for the students throughout.
It was clear to me from the outset that my teaching must be led by research expectations in general and not by a personal research agenda. Early stage courses would be better if they delivered knowledge and understanding of the concepts that would be needed by anyone in the field that aspired to contribute to research later. This inevitably spills over into more generic skills that can be even more widely applied in many other careers. Later stage courses demand more input from the students as they develop their own ideas through assignments and project work. My research projects had developed mostly in the area of biochemical processes in the environment, the role of microorganisms and especially their evolution and genetics. This featured mostly in my final year teaching and less so in the broader-based first and second year classes.
The solution to finding the time to teach.
The best solution to addressing increased student numbers has always been to hire more permanent academic staff, not temporary staff. The crude management tactic of diverting research active staff away from teaching, in favour of hiring less experienced staff on short term contracts, only works in the short term. The staff I observed in this position were enthusiastic and worked hard. The students rightly appreciated this, but it did not take very much for them to realise that the situation was not quite right. They could see it was obviously ‘casualisation’ of the academic staff when more permanent staff was the better option for them. In the long-term it is likely that course notes and materials will be passed from one temporary staff member to the next temporary staff member over time. There is nothing more unedifying than watching an unsure lecturer ‘spouting’ from another’s notes and slides or worse, straight from a text with no apparent input of direct experience or ideas from themselves. In my experience, students can readily ‘smell’ a ‘rush job’ and the associated lack of commitment and confidence. Alternatively, an obviously experienced researcher and teacher making an effort to set out course materials in their own way, and in a clear and precise manner, inspires considerably more confidence in what is being taught. It takes an experienced research academic with additional time over several years to realign and redevelop courses as new ideas emerge.
This is the essence of university level teaching and subjects are in danger of stagnating if they are not nurtured and fed regularly with new ideas. When students realise this, and rarely see some of the highly paid research staff locked in expensive looking buildings, they ask awkward questions. They feel they might be missing out when they are paying.
The simple answer to them is to show that every university academic teaches and carries out research in the subject being taught. Academic planning should give equal status to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding by the staff as to the dissemination of understanding and knowledge to the students. The intellectual demands of good teaching will inform good research if done diligently. Many more students are struggling financially and accumulating personal debt at considerable risk and they will expect no less from their university.
University education is at the highest level possible because it integrates research with teaching. It should aspire to aim higher in both, not to isolate teaching as a ‘trivial’ activity that is seen as a punishment or can be churned out by anyone. The students are not there to simply benefit from basking in the research ‘reputation’ of a university. They gain nothing from researchers who they rarely see.
Mike Larkin, is an Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.