Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 10

Submission from the Research and Teaching Group (R & T Group)


  1.  The Research and Teaching Group (R & T Group) was founded in 1998 by a number of independent researchers committed to exploring the relationship between research and teaching for the benefit of the student learning experience (see Annex A for list of members)..

2.  This memorandum is submitted by the R & T Group on behalf of its members. The R & T Group welcomes the opportunity to respond to this invitation.

  3.  The R & T Group represents higher education researchers, national and institutional policymakers who have engaged with these issues for over a decade. This memorandum provides evidence from R & T Group international conferences and regular deliberations and is in response to the theme on "The balance between teaching and research" identified in the consultation document.


  4.  "We believe an understanding of the research process—asking the right questions in the right way; conducting experiments; and collating and evaluating information—must be a key part of any undergraduate curriculum" Bill Rammell University of Warwick 25 October 2006.

    "So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don't have to teach. Never." Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate, in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

  5.  The reorganisation of the DfES and DTI brought the elements of the dual funding system for universities within a single Department for the first time, a Department whose organisational structure is aligned with the strategy of the ten-year science framework, and in which research, teaching and learning sit together. Historic changes to the funding and regulation of universities have made a major contribution to raising standards and ensuring quality but have, unfortunately, also encouraged a separation of their three core activities: education, research and outreach. As a result, the potential benefit of each activity to the others has become harder to achieve, and they are often in competition with one another for resources and esteem.

  6.  This is in a context where both the universities and government are keen to understand and maximise the benefit which flows to society from what universities do. The problems in gaining that benefit are well documented. In particular, the Lambert Review highlighted how UK business often fails to benefit from university research, and the Leitch Review highlighted how university courses often do not develop in graduates the skills and abilities which they need in their careers. Even in the short period since those reviews, the rapidly changing nature of business and society driven by the growth of the internet makes it likely that these failings are more damaging for the UK, not less. This is not of course to imply that the fault lies wholly on the supply side.

  7.  The conclusion of the work of the Research & Teaching Group is that forging a closer connection between staff research and student education provides clear benefit to both, and can make a major contribution to rectifying these weaknesses. Furthermore, it is clearly an opportune moment to do this, as was noted by the Secretary of State in his speech at the Wellcome Centre last spring: "The strength of DIUS should lie in its ability to bring all aspects of higher education policy—teaching, research, innovation—together. The world is evolving very quickly and we must be able to unlock British talent and support economic growth through innovation as never before. We need to decide what a world-class HE system of the future should look like, what it should seek to achieve, and establish the current barriers to its development."

  8.  Many higher education institutions (HEIs) claim that their teaching is "research led" or "research informed", but in practice this rarely provides students with much direct engagement with the research process. It most often means that students read contemporary journals reporting on the findings of research, that their teachers are active researchers or scholars, and that they do limited research projects within the confines of what is sometimes a highly regulated course structure. Research funding rewards activities favoured by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and many in the academic community, and effectively penalises anything which might get in the way of this, eg undergraduate involvement in research. As Stokes[14] argued, the distinction between basic and applied research is based on a misunderstanding of the history of science that has had malign consequences for the role of universities in innovation. Similarly, it has been a force in isolating education activities from the research work of universities. Yet the full range of research which Stokes describes is of clear value in developing a student's skills and abilities.

  9.  By contrast, many United States of America (US) institutions involve undergraduates in authentic open-ended research endeavours and have done so for decades. The motivations for this are many, but it has become an established part of the higher education landscape there, and is appearing in other countries too. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) at MIT is 35 years old, and is cited by many alumni as a key factor in their development and subsequent success. The National Science Foundation established the Undergraduate Research Collaborative Program[15] to further this agenda. Its goals are to have an impact on the skills of graduates, the culture of both universities and industry, and to widen participation in higher education by making the experience more attractive. It also classifies the use of current research project findings in the undergraduate curriculum as one way of satisfying the obligation to disseminate them. The overwhelming experience there is that each of these practices is of benefit to both the undergraduates and the academics involved. Indeed, many academics welcome the stimulus provided by young minds focussing on their current research, especially when the narrow constraints of didactic responsibility are loosened. Furthermore, these benefits are not confined to a narrow range of subjects in science and technology, nor are they restricted to a few elite institutions.

  10.  It should be emphasised that as well as acting as researchers in a piece of research, students can work like researchers through research-like project work. Such work is best incorporated in the general learning programme through approaches like Problem Based Learning (PBL) and Enquiry Based Learning (EBL). In all cases it is essential that the assessment of the student's learning is congruent with the programme's aims and projected outcomes.

  11.  The responsibilities of the Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in assuring (a) the quality of teaching provision and learning opportunities in UK HEIs; and (b) the balance between teaching and research in HEIs is our primary concern in this inquiry.

  12.  In the 2000 Review of Research by HEFCE, there was scepticism as to the value of a link between education and research, but practice has begun to reflect the US model. Imperial College has an established the UROP scheme which it has expanded in recent years; Cambridge established its own version in 2002 as a result of its work with MIT; the BBSRC and EPSRC have provided experimental funding for summer research by undergraduates; and HEFCE have funded a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) on undergraduate research at Oxford Brookes and Warwick to advance our understanding of its value. The experience of this work supports the conclusions of the R&T Forum. It greatly stimulates student interest in their subject and thereby increases the likelihood of a career in it, either in the academy or outside, which is a particularly important consideration in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. But there are significant benefits in non-STEM subjects too. Arguably, the learning gained and skills developed by students working on research in non-STEM areas, especially the Arts and Humanities, is one of the major ways that benefit flows from such research to the society and the economy. Overall, any student who graduates with authentic experience of research will have greatly enhanced generic transferable skills as well as a quite different and much more mature attitude towards knowledge.

  13.  Advancing the goal of connecting research to the education of students will require new policy initiatives to effect institutional change. The following are offered as possible starting points.

    — Giving closer attention to the linkage between an institution's research and its educational provision in its own internal processes and the assessment of this in institutional audits and other external reviews and evaluations;

    — Including questions about the link between research within the educational provision in student surveys;

    — Including the impact of staff research on student education in the metrics to be used post 2008 for Research Evaluation;

    — Providing support for collaboration with the Higher Education Academy, the ESRC and other Research Councils, in the evaluation of existing teaching programmes;

    — Developing focussed support to build upon existing publicly funded initiatives in the UK, eg the Learning through Enquiry Alliance group of six CETLs, and the BBSRC/EPSRC undergraduate research programmes which draw on the successful practices which have been instituted elsewhere;

    — Creating initiatives to promote and extend PBL and EBL;

    — Within funded research programmes, giving additional value to those kinds of research which can offer particular benefits to student learning.

  14.  The relationship between staff research and student education is a highly important one for both activities. The Research and Teaching Group is therefore delighted that the Committee has chosen to make this one of the main themes of its inquiry. There is now a good deal of understanding and experience to guide us to the best ways of achieving synergies between the two activities. Some of this is reflected in the Group's submission. The Group would therefore welcome the opportunity to give oral evidence to the Committee at its discretion.

December 2008

14   Stokes, D.E. (1997) Pasteur's Quadrant. Washington: Brookings Institution Press. Back

15   See Back

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