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The teaching-research nexus

In a perfect world there would be perfect research universities delivering perfect high quality courses, and the more ground-breaking research undertaken by academics the better their teaching would become, with new knowledge passed on to students. But the fact is that when professors are researching they are not teaching and vice versa - there is often conflict at the teaching-research nexus.

Analysis of the teaching-research nexus is not only a complex technical task but also fraught with political overtones and vested interests, write Lynn Meek and Dianne Davies in "Policy Dynamics in Higher Education and Research: Concepts and observations", a chapter of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge's Research Report.

Higher education plays an essential role in the Knowledge Economy, and there is evidence to suggest that every nation needs at least one university with a degree of research intensity. "However, whether every higher education institution needs to pursue a research as well as a teaching mandate is quite another question," write Meek and Davies.

"At the undergraduate level, it is easier to identify the negative aspects of a heavy emphasis on the teaching-research nexus than the positives ones. The main dysfunctions are: devaluing teaching and diverting staff time from teaching; forcing staff who have little interest and-or skill in research to become research-active; and diluting scarce financial resources."

At the postgraduate level, though, it is essential for research training to be supported by a strong research culture. But not every institution or every field in particular institutions necessarily needs to be engaged in postgraduate research training activities, they stress.

The relationship between the teaching-research nexus and institutional mission diversity is also complex, Meek and Davies point out. While there have been attempts to promote differentiation between research-led (elite) and access-oriented (mass) institutions, they have been political difficulties and it has been difficult to segregate the two.

A consequence has been that research is now conducted in a wider range of non-university settings including in governments, business, communities and the media.

Old divisions of labour between fundamental and applied research are disappearing, along with functional distinctions between universities, public laboratories and industrial and other private research. Also, with the World Wide Web making societies more knowledgeable, societies have challenged the elite positions of many professions, including academia.

Still, differentiation within and between institutions is an important policy question, write Meek and Davies, and evidence suggests that research remains the primary differentiator. "The important research question is how to foster diversity by preventing institutions from converging on a single preconceived 'gold standard' of what is proper higher education."

They continue later: "A case probably can be made that all university staff should be engaged in scholarship at a high level, which means staying informed about the latest research in their areas of expertise. However, with respect to research itself, concentration and selectivity appear to be the order of the day."

Yet another crucial nexus is that between universities and industry and commerce, which is becoming increasingly important, the authors argue.

In OECD countries, which produce some 80% of the world's research and development, most R&D is carried out by business and industry. But the proportion conducted in universities and university-affiliated research centres has grown substantially in recent years.

Meek and Davies stress the need to be cautious about the impact of commercialisation and knowledge transfer on universities, regarding return on investment. A study by the Australian Centre for Innovation suggested that research commercialisation was likely to generate no more than 3% to 5% of university revenue. Costs are high and few if any universities are able to support themselves through the commercialisation of research products.

In the US, annual licensing revenue grew from $160 million in 1991 to $862 million in 1999, but still only accounts for about 2.7% of university R&D expenditure, and industry funding for university research has been stable at around 6% in the past two decades.

Interestingly, though, 60% of industry funding is for basic research. "The argument that university-industry commercial partnerships are turning the attention of research universities away from the more fundamental, knowledge for knowledge sake questions can be challenged," the authors write.

It has been argued that a major drawback to greater commercialisation of university research is the threat posed to 'open science' and academic freedom. The fear is that commercial ventures can limit free exchange and dissemination of ideas, that academics may be hindered in the open publication of research results, and that research students may be caught between dual loyalties to the university and the firm.

"There is some empirical evidence to suggest that academics involved in commercial ventures are more secretive, but other studies have shown that they are also more productive and publish more," write Meek and Davies.

More positively, a growing trend for joint publications between university, industry and government researchers appears to have increased the significance of university researchers' contributions, and university-industry partnerships appear to accelerate technological diffusion. This has encouraged policies that stimulate partnerships in many countries.

There is no one best model for enhancing these relationships or for commercialising and applying publicly-funded research. Successful links, transfer channels and partnerships seem to depend greatly on the contexts - national, regional and global - in which they occur. But some generalisations about university-industry partnerships are possible:

* The quality of the relationships and resulting free flow of information are as or more important than the actual commercialisation of a research product.
* Interactive partnerships are becoming the norm, rather than simple contractual arrangements to develop a specific product.
* University and other forms of publicly-funded research provide the core support for knowledge transfer and innovation.
* While universities and industry are coming closer together, the distinctive qualities of each must be preserved.
* University-industry partnerships are increasingly regarded as an important policy instrument for regional development and are seen in an overall context of community engagement that extends from the local to the global.
* A more multi-disciplinary approach to university-industry relationships is emerging, along with recognition that social and cultural factors and the involvement of social scientists are also important in bringing about successful innovation.

Though there is no one best model, Meek and Davies write that policy is key to encouraging university-industry relationships. Research has shown that growth is affected not only by the quantum of funding but by the way funds are allocated and by knowledge dissemination and research commercialisation practices adopted.

"A narrow priority-driven and overly utilitarian approach to public support for research may in the long-term be counterproductive." Rather government should encourage a melting pot of institutions able to draw on and be inspired by commercialised knowledge.

Developing 'indigenous knowledge'

UNESCO recognises a split between knowledge spread through standard higher education systems, based on the formal western model, and knowledge rooted in cultures, passed on locally down the generations. It calls this 'indigenous' knowledge in reference to people whose culture was downgraded in the past if they were colonised or subjected to strong foreign cultural influences, especially from Europe and North America.

UNESCO notes the great value that such traditional knowledge may offer in terms of medicines, food production, environmental husbandry and other key issues. And it notes concerns where the use of legal intellectual property rights have been employed to exploit such knowledge commercially, and where communities from whence the knowledge came have not benefited financially. Indeed, in a worst case scenario (such as attempts to patent a traditional food or medicinal substance) they could lose legal rights to such knowledge.

Clearly this is wrong and one way of preventing it happening is integrating 'indigenous' knowledge in higher education research systems, especially in those based in countries developing these traditions. It highlights one study arguing for the "inclusion of Pacific [island] 'indigenous knowledge systems' in the discourse on knowledge production and dissemination in higher education, particularly...in Oceania."

* Professor Lynn Meek is Director of the LH Martin Institute for Educational Management at the University of Melbourne.

* Dianne Davies is a freelance researcher and editor in Australia.

Click here to download the Unesco Forum Research Report.
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