The enduring challenge of balancing teaching and research

Teaching and research activities are recognised to be academics’ core responsibilities. A recent book, entitled Teaching and Research in the Knowledge-Based Society: Historical and comparative perspectives brings together research on academics’ actual teaching and research activities and their views of the teaching-research nexus.

The academics come from 11 participating country teams in Asia, Europe, North America and South America and the book draws on a unique international database linked to the Academic Profession in the Knowledge-Based Society (APIKS) survey.

The book explores and compares what changes have occurred in these themes from 1992 and-or 2007 to 2017, and what similarities and differences exist between the different countries.

Changes occurring in academics’ teaching and research activities are more significant and evident compared to other more minor academic activities over time.


Unlike academics who were only engaged in teaching in the European mediaeval universities, the emergence of the links between teaching and research based on the Humboldtian idea of the university and the establishment of the University of Berlin in the early 19th century are considered to be the starting point and symbol of modern universities.

However, although the Humboldtian idea has been introduced to many countries since the 19th century, it has been practised differently according to the national higher education context, to varying institutional characteristics and other factors.

The massification of higher education started in Western countries in the 1960s and brought about tremendous changes to academics’ teaching and research activities.

New ways of conceptualising knowledge, the advancement of economic globalisation and the application of the theory of new public management in higher education as well as the construction of global first-rate universities in some higher education systems over the past 30 years have not only made academic work more diversified, and increasingly complex, but have also changed universities’ teaching and research activities and views about the teaching-research nexus.

A general trend is that the role of academics’ research and their research productivity has been increasingly strengthened.

A global overview

Numerous research studies have been undertaken concerning academics’ activities, their views of the two different activities and the teaching-research nexus from various perspectives.

For the first time, the complexities of academics’ teaching and research and their relationships at the global level are empirically analysed in the new book and discussed in relation to the relevant findings from the international survey of the academic profession coordinated by the US Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1992-93, in which 14 countries participated.

Fifteen years later, a follow-up international survey, Changing Academic Profession (CAP), was carried out in 17 countries and Hong Kong.

Building on these previous surveys and findings, the APIKS international surveys were implemented in 2017. At present, nearly 30 country teams are involved in the project and an international database has been built based on national surveys that were administered by more than 20 country teams.

The APIKS survey included some questions adopted in the two previous surveys to enable country teams which had participated in the previous two surveys to explore changes to these aspects over time.

It also created new questions, mainly relating to academics’ opinions of their received doctoral education and training, internationalisation of their institutions, their societal engagement and the career and professional situation of academics in their formative career stages.

Most chapters of the book analysed the data on teaching, research and the nexus between the two based on surveys of similar target populations – universities or higher education institutes which award bachelor or equivalent degrees, just as the previous international surveys in 1992 and 2007 did.

By doing so, a comprehensive and in-depth overview of how academics who are engaged in teaching and research view teaching and research and the relationship between the two is presented.

Second, based on the analysis of findings from national surveys conducted in 1992, 2007 and 2017, or 2007 and 2017, some chapters are able to discuss observations about changes that have occurred over time.

Third, in addition to the 11 case countries, seven chapters present in-depth analysis of around three countries each – the countries being chosen because of possible similarities or key differences or because they are neighbours.

Mismatch between policy and practice

So what did we find?

Firstly, there was an obvious mismatch between national policies and individual academics’ actual teaching and research activities. For example, although they were encouraged by their respective governments to devote more time to teaching, most of the academics in Japan and South Korea still showed a high degree of interest in research and spent more time on research.

Secondly, while only minor changes occurred in academics’ preferences and their time spent on teaching and research in most case countries since 1992, a majority of the academics reported that they tried to maintain a good balance between teaching and research activities and pursued the links between teaching and research.

Thirdly, as expected, respondents’ views of their teaching and research and the relationship between the two differ remarkably according to different higher education systems, higher education institutions within a system and individual academics’ preferences.

To illustrate, by country, a greater number of the academics from the higher education systems that were strongly affected by the Humboldtian idea, such as Japan and South Korea, are interested in research and they spend more time on it than countries such as Russia and Argentina.

Further, the case of Canada suggests that there are variations in academics’ beliefs about teaching and research and the nexus between them and about the time they allocate to teaching or research according to the different institutions they work in.

Moreover, when it comes to time spent on teaching or research and research productivity, differences also exist between generations in many of the participating countries.

Finally, the findings of the book confirmed some hypotheses. For example, the more an academic preferred research to teaching, the more time they would spend on research and the more productive the academic would become.

Academics from the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields were reported to be more productive when it comes to research. Academics from highly reputed universities or research universities also appear to be more productive in research.

However, there were also some unexpected outcomes. For example, despite an increase in time spent on research, research productivity by Japanese academics, particularly those from research universities, declined between 2007 and 2017.

Further, while research seems to be more valued as part of academics’ role in most countries, there are some exceptional countries where academics are encouraged to devote more to teaching.

Seemingly, globalisation of higher education has not led to more commonly shared views of the teaching-research nexus. Remarkable differences are still apparent and are considerable between countries, universities and individual academics. Moreover, academics are still confronted with the challenge of how to balance their teaching and research activities and must still strive to bring the two together.

Futao Huang is professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan.