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Human Resource Management in Higher Education

The Division between Research & Teaching in Western Europe Academia Academic Profession: Requirements & Changes

Layla Jorge Teixeira Cesar and Rebecca Maxwell Stuart


Higher Education systems in Western Europe are currently putting such enormous pressure on the academic profession that it may even endanger the survival of the very identity of academics and universities. Notedly, one of the main reasons for that crisis is the expansion of student enrolment that took place over the past decades and drove a change from the intellectual discourse of teachers to a structure of organized curricula and instruction techniques. Along with that, the formation of a knowledge based economy, brought higher education to a central position in producing techological innovation, contributing to dissociate teaching and research functions. (Kogan & Teichler, 2007).

The raising of international rankings increased pressure for efficiency. Evaluation is based mainly on research outputs, measured by its most tangible form: publishing. Within institutions there is a clear overload of functions on academic professionals, divided between the compromise to traditional ideals and the new pressures for productivity.

On recent decades, new activities are increasingly adding to that dichotomy, such as management and administrative functions or community services, that will also fill the working hours of academics and intensify the opposition between teaching and research, as less time is available for both.

The multiple roles of academics are not necessarily in conflict, and finding balance among them is necessary to overcome the current crisis. In the present paper, the issues of teaching and research will be specially focused.

This paper aims to clarify the link between research and teaching in what concerns the academic profession, addressing the following main questions:

  • How do the politics of academia influence the focus of the academic profession?
  • What are the pressures put of the academics to deliver research versus pressures to deliver teaching?
  • What practices should be considered in institutional level in order to promotethis culture shift, so that teaching is as valued as research is?

The scope of analysis is reduced to those institutions centred in Western European countries, as it makes possible to offer a more accurate approach. The area holds a relatively uniform social and economic development level and may be pointed as the cradle for the predominant model of university that has spread around the world, having been central in defining the so called modern era and establishing higher education paradigms. This paper will focus on the nexus of research and teaching at an institutional level, in order to provide sufficient conclusions.


The Politics of Academia

The mutual beneficial nexus between basic research and academic teaching was a paradigm created in the German university reform of the 19th century (Enders, 2007). The systemic expansion that would follow on the 20th century, though, raised a big tension between these two poles, as the emergence of the modern academic profession was characterized by an overload of functions (Schimank & Wines, 2000).

Enders identifies a few elements that have contributed to raising this tension in many industrial societies after the World War II, such as the boom of the economics of education (meaning that educational investment should aim economic growth), along with the belief that scientific and technological innovation should serve societal needs.

Currently, the fiscal constraints on higher education, related to the economic crisis that affected the EU on the beginning of 21st century, have contributed to opposing research and teaching activities as it divides the sources of funding: resources for teaching have been reduced to the number of students, whereas research funding becomes more subjected to market influence. (Enders, 2007)

As research gains centrality, institutions become oriented towards a common mission of climbing up international rankings, allowing academic content of both teaching and research to be moderated through conferences and publication systems. Authority on the coordination of the university shifts from its teachers and departments to its managerial board, and, in a bigger scale, from the institution itself to external quality assurance systems. (Kogan and Teichler, 2007)

As a consequence of that scenario, there are a few changes on the focus of academic profession, influenced by the current politics of academia in Western Europe, such as a loss of professional autonomy and power to shape its organisational environment and an increasing pressure of external societal expectations and external control of their performance. (Kogan and Teichler, 2007)

The dimension of such consequences, nevertheless, may vary according to its local context, and that could not possibly be covered by the present paper. There are numerous social settings contributing to shaping the academic profession, among the most evident of which are: (a) its national higher education system; (b) the type of institution, whether it is private or public, technically, vocationally, or research and teaching oriented; and (c) the different disciplines and fields of studies that it relates to, building differences even inside a same institution (Clark, 1987). In this sense, it is not possible to define a universal profile of academic professionals for the entire Western Europe, but only to identify general trends.

Pressures of Research Versus Pressures of Teaching

In the past few decades, the academic profession has become not only the most influential in shaping other professions and sectors (Perkins, 1987), but also a category that stretches and expands more than any other (Clark, 1987). That is mostly due to the rise of the knowledge society and the expansion and diversification of higher education in the modern western European societies.

The centrality of technological innovation in promoting economic growth makes the university a key institution for the generation of capital, and it is remarkable the increasing pressure on institutions to invest predominantly on research, making teaching a secondary activity. Not only is there a stronger focus on research outputs; administrative and managerial duties are prevalent and leaving little room for teaching enhancement.

This translates into practice through most quality assurance mechanisms applied to higher education evaluation at international level, that focus mainly on publishing and other research aspects as the greater institutional output. Times Higher Education, for example, dedicates 65% of its evaluation to research and industrial innovation aspects, only 30% being oriented towards teaching activities. If we take Jiao-Tong ranking, the difference increases to 80% of focus on research outputs and only 10% on teaching outputs.

Another important reflex of the distinction made between research and teaching refers to the amount of investment put in each area. In this year of 2014 will officially have start Horizon 2020, the European Union Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, which aims to inject at least 80 billion on research over the course of 7 years and have universities as a main target, whereas no similar material and immaterial investment is being made in terms of stimulating teaching at higher education level.

In itself, this cannot be judged as a bad or good distinction. Technology has advanced more in the past few decades than in any other western era, and, from this innovation perspective, the positive effects of investing in research are more than evident. Besides, the main reason why university has been able to endure the past eight centuries of history as an institution is its ability to transform and adapt itself to new environments, while preserving its institutional identity, and the present historical moment points towards the growing importance of research as a function of higher education.

The multiple roles of academics haven't necessarily got to be in conflict, and it is possible that a professional dedicate itself to different activities inside its home institution. Focusing on a single one, nevertheless, will mean less time available for others. Finding balance may be a hard conciliatory and administrative task, although it is a mostly fundamental one. Defining institutional goals for how academics should distribute their working hours may have a strong impact both at institutional level, affecting the quality of work, as at individual level, on the way these professionals will run their daily activities.

In order to measure such impacts, Ruth Neumann (1994) conducted a study to understand students perceptions of the teaching and research nexus. The aim was to verify their awareness of teachers research responsibilities as well as the impact it had on the quality of the education they received. As a result, Neumann pointed that, with only one exception, all the academics identified by the students as good teachers were also active researchers. The contrary, though, was not true: not all active researchers were identified as good teachers. Such conclusions, she affirms, suggest that active research involvement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good teaching.

This highlights the importance of teaching within higher education, especially when it comes to the quality of education that students receive. Possibly, researchers are not valuing teaching for the very system they work in won’t stimulate them in such direction, or on the flip-side, that the system in which the profession exists does not perceive teaching as being as valuable as research. This could also, in a long term, make the universities incapable of feeding themselves, as good researchers may be pressured into focusing on research outputs rather than teaching the future academics.

When asked about it, academic professionals have identified such pressures. In the UK, a survey conducted by UCU (2013) found that over a quarter of respondents felt that they did not have enough time to prepare their teaching because of the need to focus on their Research Excellence Framework (REF) outputs. It also found that a number of institutions are warning academic staff not included in the REF that they face capability procedures, denial of promotion or progression to the next grade or transfer to a teaching-focused contract. The fact that universities are threatening academics that they will be moved to a teaching-focused contract highlights the marginalisation occurring between these two key activities in higher education. This affects the existence of academic freedom as how can stakeholders perceive teaching to be equal to research when the culture is to threaten teaching as a punishment and not an honour.   

What practices should be considered in institutional level in order to promote this culture shift, so that teaching is as valued as research is?

Perkin’s (1987) argued that in the past, university teaching was extremely important in society as academics were “the educators and selectors” of other professions. He went on to state that this ‘winning streak’ is on a downhill slope, particularly after the recent recession. As much as things are no longer like they were in the past, we must now look into the future and see the figurative academic phoenix rise out of the turbulent economical ashes that have laid waste in the past decade. By developing strategies within institutions to promote the element of teaching within the academic profession, this will help implementing the culture shift that is needed in order to adapt to the higher education systems of today.

It is important to note that the academic profession can vary depending on the setting. In terms of academia, there is no one size fits all, especially considering the diverse range of subjects that one HEI alone can deliver. Due to this reason, it can be difficult to address human resource issues, such as the teaching and research dilemma. For example, if something was put in place in an ancient, research-intensive university such as Oxford, the solution would not suit a younger university that focuses on the applied sciences. Therefore, the following solutions and measures that are discussed in this section are generic and can be adapted to suit the context.

So far, this paper has covered the politics of the academic profession and the reasons as to why research is perceived to play a bigger role in higher education compared to teaching. But what is now needed is to answer the question: how can this change? The following could be considered to help change the perception that research is more important at institutional level:

  • Development of teaching awards
  • Promotion and incentives for excellent teaching
  • Redesigning contracts to suit teaching workload
  • Better training opportunities
  • Creating stronger linkages with unions

Development of teaching awards: In recent years, teaching awards are becoming more established in higher education systems. Canada has well-established teaching awards within their institutions for over a decade, with the establishment of the 3M National Teaching Fellowship in 1986. In comparison, the UK only has one Teaching Fellowship through the Higher Education Academy which is awarded to 55 academics a year, and very few institutions have designated teaching awards. In contrast, the amount of research rewards and fellowships within the UK, and beyond, are numerous. Student Led Teaching Awards (SLTA) are on the increase, however, these are run by the students, in which they are recognising good teaching and engaging with quality. Academics are calling for university management to recognise teaching excellence and award appropriately (Goldberg, 2013).

Promotion and incentives for excellent teaching: Moving on from teaching awards, universities can help raise the importance of teaching within the academic profession through robust procedures for promotion due to teaching excellence. Currently, the focus of gaining tenure or a promotion is based on how many publications an academic has, and where these have been published. This could be adapted for teaching excellence through the use of robust student feedback mechanisms on teaching, class grade results and appraisals. One of the problems here is that teaching outputs are more intangible than being published in a certain journal. However, through consultation with academics, managers and students, a suitable paradigm can be established.

Redesigning contracts to suit teaching workload: As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of pressure on academics to deliver on research outputs, especially for quality measuring tools such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK. This means that a large amount of time and effort is spent on these activities, with teaching taking up the remainder of the time. Teaching contracts are being used to threaten ‘under-performers’ of research, when what is needed for universities, and higher education systems in general, to promote the opportunity of teaching and allow suitable time within contracts to suit the academic’s responsibilities.

Better Training Opportunities: Another method to promote teaching within higher education is to offer significant training opportunities and support to academics. Teaching qualifications is not mandatory in most HEIs in order to obtain lecturing responsibilities; and within doctoral education as much as the focus is on research, there does not have to be an element of teaching in order to become a doctor. This, further, strengthens the divide between teaching and research, if early academics are told that research is better recognised than teaching. This needs to change by integrating teaching - and training - into all PhD programmes, and early academic career paths. Robust training will also help remove the stigma of teaching, as more academics will feel confident in their ability to pass on their knowledge and understand the values and rewards of teaching.

Creating stronger linkages with unions: This includes both staff trade unions, and student representative unions and associations. Institutions that have strong connections with these bodies will have a closer understanding to the needs of their teaching staff as well as the needs of the students that are being taught. Academic trade unions, such as University and College Union (UCU) in the UK, represent the views of university staff in terms of research and teaching. In order to better understand the thoughts and feelings of the academics that deliver the teaching and research outputs. What can be perceived as an issue at the top level of an institution in terms of teaching, may be completely different to what the chalk-nosed lecturer perceives to be the issue. Consultation is key when it comes to implementing changes, in order to reduce resistance. Therefore, by working in partnership with staff through academic trade unions, senior management and the HR department can address the needs of their academia. Not only should there be stronger linkages with academic staff trade unions, but there should also be collaboration with student unions and student reps. These organisations represent the learner, who has direct contact with the issues caused by the disproportionate focus on research compared to teaching in Western European higher education. Students can be partners (see: Bovill et al., 2011; Gibbs, 2012; Harrison, 2012; Wenstone, 2012)  in improving the system and helping to promote the excellent teaching that is provided at universities, as well as have a great understanding of why research plays a crucial role in higher education.


A growing disengagement between research and teaching can be witnessed today, within HEIs. As pointed out previously, there is a historical connection bonding the two areas, and yet in more recent times teaching has been marginalised and undervalued as more focus has been put on the reputational and monetary benefits of universities concentrating on research.

This is the result of a shift in western European societies, from an economy based on the production of goods to another based on the production of information and technological innovation. On top of this, the beginning of the 21st century has also dealt with an economic crisis that affected fiscal constraints on EU's higher education, contributing to oppose research and teaching activities as it divides the sources of funding, reducing the resources for teaching to the number of students, whereas research funding becomes more subjected to market influence.

Even though this paper has focused on improving the aspect of teaching, it is important to note that this perspective does not undermine the importance of research within universities. The main characteristic that has allowed university to survive as an institution for over eight centuries is its ability to transform and adapt itself to new environments, and the present historical moment points towards the centrality of research as a function of higher education, alongside management and administrative duties.

Extremism, nevertheless, may have negative effects on academia, leading, for example, to a crisis in the way academic profession is now structured. Not only is there a visible overload of functions to academics but also universities may be losing their capability of feeding themselves with high quality teachers and researchers, as they seem to be reducing the input on the next generations of students.

A balance between teaching and researching is required if a university is to keep on attending the societal needs for highly qualified education, promoting not only technological but also social innovation. Therefore, establishing formal or intentional linkages between research and teaching – or definitely blurring the lines between the two – is a current necessity, as it updates the social function of higher education institutions.

This paper has also concentrated on the aspects of improving the reputation of teaching in the academic profession -within an institutional context-, describing mechanisms to promote teaching, and bring it to the forefront of higher education. Among the most relevant strategies, are the development of teaching awards, the promotion and incentives for excellent teaching, redesigning contracts to suit teaching workload, better training opportunities and the creation of stronger linkages with unions. None of these, though, may succeed if there is not a general change in attitude, not only should with individual institutions, but also within government departments, research councils, society, rankings and individuals. Within systems, higher education needs reform, so that teaching excellence is recognised as equal with research excellence.


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