Changing attitudes to university teaching and research

Since the early 1990s, the traditional role of the academic has been greatly expanded and significantly challenged in large part due to massification, marketisation, internationalisation of higher education and the advancement of the knowledge society.

Three international projects over the past three decades have explored both the reasons for and the consequences of these changes. The first, the International Survey of the Academic Profession, was conducted in 1991-92. Thirteen countries and Hong Kong carried out national surveys using a similar questionnaire.

Partly as a follow-up to this, the Changing Academic Profession (CAP) project was launched in 2007, aiming to examine the nature and extent of the changes experienced by the academic profession between 1992 and 2007. Altogether 17 countries and Hong Kong conducted national surveys with almost the same questionnaire as part of this project.

According to a 1994 study led by Ernest L Boyer and a 1996 paper edited by Philip Altbach, the most striking findings from the International Survey in 1991-92 include that the academic profession is committed to teaching and research and to its traditional values of autonomy, academic freedom and the importance of scholarship; it is willing to respond to calls for higher education to contribute more tangibly to economic development and social-well being; and there is a lack of regret about career choices.

With respect to the main findings from the CAP project, some common changes and challenges emerged:

  • • The profession included a growing percentage of higher degrees, especially doctorates awarded abroad.

  • • There were more fixed-term appointments.

  • • There was high job satisfaction.

  • • Increasingly cumbersome administrative processes were noted as well as a top-down management style.

  • • There were increased pressures on faculty, especially on young faculty in the research arena.

  • • Increasing feminisation of the profession, especially in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Mexico.

  • • The profession was increasingly competitive both to enter and progress.

  • • Increased working hours and workload were noted across the academic profession.

  • • Increased numbers of articles and books were published by academics.

  • • An increasingly ageing academic profession was observed, especially in Australia and Japan.

  • • Academic freedom was under threat.

  • • Academic activities were seemingly fragmented and new divisions of labour were noted within the profession.

  • • There was a widening gap between teaching and research activities evident not only among different systems, but also within systems.

Since this survey, universities have played an increasingly important role in the knowledge society and academics have a vital role in transmitting, creating and disseminating knowledge.

The third survey, the Academic Profession in the Knowledge Society (APIKS) project, was launched in 2015 with a focus on exploring the academics in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and the new challenges facing them in the knowledge society.

This and ongoing national surveys draw in part on comparisons between current developments and those documented in the previous international surveys.

Teaching and research activities are recognised as academics’ core responsibilities and as a result changes occurring in their teaching and research activities are more significant than other more minor academic activities.

More importantly, it is generally recognised that the teaching and research nexus perceived by academics varies significantly according to different higher education systems, academics’ employment status, discipline, academic rank, age, etc.

Balancing research and teaching

In early March 2019, the first international conference was held in Hiroshima, Japan, to share the preliminary findings from national surveys focused on teaching, research activities and the nexus between teaching and research.

Twenty national teams from Asia, Europe and North and South America participated in the conference and reported their preliminary findings using a similar questionnaire.

Major findings show, firstly, that compared to the previous two international projects, it seems that increasing numbers of academics emphasise both teaching and research activities and seek to balance the two activities.

For instance, the Lithuanian higher education system has developed from a pre-Humboldtian model, which emphasised the separation of teaching and research to a post-Humboldtian model which pays the same attention to teaching as it does to research, although teaching and research roles, administration and resources have become increasingly differentiated.

Second, there are two key questions in the commonly used questionnaire by all the participating teams that deal with the nexus between teaching and research.

One regards the statement that “teaching and research are hardly compatible with each other” in the questionnaire. Despite incomplete responses, most national teams, including Canada and Japan, answered with a “strongly disagree”. However, a tiny proportion of participating teams like Estonia agreed with the statement in their responses.

The other question is the statement that “your research activities reinforce your teaching”. Once again, a majority of participating teams agree with it. They include Canada, China, Lithuania, Slovenia and Turkey.

Third, based on responses, two broad groups were identifiable. One group reflects teaching-oriented systems in which more than half of academics believe that their primary interest is in teaching or in both teaching and research, but with a leaning towards teaching. Typical examples include Argentina, Portugal, Russia, Taiwan and the USA.

The other more research-intensive group refers to China, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and Turkey. Their faculty are primarily focused on research or both research and teaching, but leaning more towards research.

Compared to the 1991-92 survey and the CAP survey, it appears that the proportion of participating teams that show a greater preference for research has increased in absolute terms.

Important reasons behind this include growing academic competition worldwide, the introduction of performance-based evaluation of university faculty, the strengthening of universities’ research capability and the increasing impact of research quality on recruitment decisions, academic productivity and the push towards publishing in indexed journals.

This is especially the case in several continental European countries and countries like China and Korea where academics used to be engaged only in teaching rather than research.

Fourth, interestingly, a small number of participating teams showed a tendency to move from an emphasis on research to a greater stress on teaching compared to previous national surveys. For example, countries like Argentina, Canada and Portugal all reported that their faculty show less interest in research than they did when the CAP surveys were administered in their countries about 10 years ago.

Fifth, special mention should be made of Japanese academics’ view of teaching, research and the nexus between them. In Japan no significant differences can be identified in most faculty members’ views about the compatibility of teaching and research between 2007 and 2017.

More importantly, compared to the CAP survey, both Japanese and Korean academics are still research-dominated. This implies that within some higher education systems, the nature of faculty’s approach to teaching, research and their nexus has remained relatively stable.

Finally, differences in institutional type, academic rank, gender, discipline and employment status had the most impact on academics’ perceptions of teaching, research and the nexus between them.

In many European continental countries, the differences between universities and non-university sectors such as polytechnic institutions are considerable, whereas there are more obvious differences between national and private universities in Japan and between leading universities and local universities in China. Furthermore, these variations are also apparent between STEM and non-STEM disciplines.

To sum up, the factors mentioned above, the increased stratification in the structure of higher education and functional diversification in higher education systems worldwide and in particular growing demands on faculty from government, business, students, their parents and other stakeholders have had a significant impact on faculty’s perceptions of teaching, research and the relationship between them.

However, this does not mean that there have been changes in every aspect of faculty’s teaching and research activities or their views about these activities. More importantly, these views vary hugely between countries, higher education systems, types and sectors of higher education institutions, disciplines and so forth. Social and national context matter.

Professor Futao Huang is based at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan, and is also co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research programme.