Are teaching-only universities the way of the future?

October 2014


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The Australian government has recently put into Parliament a suite of potential changes to the higher education (HE) landscape that has generated a conversation about teaching-only universities across the Tasman.


The argument goes something like this: as the research environment gets more and more competitive for universities with a marked shift towards commercial research, teaching-only universities could make good financial sense … but if we get rid of research from universities, aren’t we missing the whole point of these institutions? Isn’t their role to create (research) as well as disseminate (teach) knowledge? Aren’t the best teachers lifelong learners?

“It has been mooted in some places in the last couple of years that teaching-only universities should be considered for Australia, but those voices are basically drowned out by the majority happy with the status quo,” observes Dr Nathan Cassidy, policy analyst for Universities Australia.

He believes there would be various short- and long-term implications for the Australian higher education sector if some universities became teaching-only and says none of the present universities would accept such ‘downgrading’ of status.

He acknowledges there would be less impact if new teaching-only universities could be established; a position taken by the private providers’ industry/lobby groups: “perhaps under the name of ‘polytechnic universities’”.

But, he says, there doesn’t seem to be any real enthusiasm for the concept at the political level, with the Minister and government in the midst of bigger battles about deregulating university fees.

So what about New Zealand? Are teaching-only universities something academics this side of the ditch are keen to see?

No, says Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities New Zealand –Te Pōkai Tara (the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee). He believes any move to make some of New Zealand’s universities teaching-only universities would have two immediate effects.

“First, it would lead to a quick flight of key research-active academic staff, and second, it would lead to a quick drop in international rankings and an equally quick drop in international student numbers and the quality of education offered to domestic students.”

He says research activity drives a disproportionately large part of a university’s international ranking and therefore its ability to attract and retain world-class staff and the best international students.

“Given the funding situation of all New Zealand universities, any move to being ‘teaching-only’ or ‘teaching-focused’ would have a disastrous effect on that university’s reputation, quality and financial viability.”

Professor Tony Harland, head of department at the Higher Education Development Centre at the University of Otago, whose own research examines the rationale for higher education and what institutions are trying to achieve for teaching, agrees.

“Much evidence has been produced over the last 200 years that this is the best model for a university – research and teaching in the same learner (academic and student). Then we have students and staff with the critical capacities to contribute to work and society and it allows the university to fulfil its broader function of preserving democracy and acting as critic and conscience of society.

“The main function of the modern university is to create and disseminate knowledge, and if an institution does not do this, it is not a university. It then becomes a different type of tertiary institution. This is an accepted worldwide view and also enshrined in New Zealand’s Education Amendment Act 1989.”

He says the concept of the teaching-only university is a free market idea that has its roots in neoliberal reform of the university sector.

“It is much cheaper to educate students when the teachers can devote all their time to teaching. In turn, you get students educated in a different way that excludes the experience of research itself – and there would be no postgraduates.”

He argues that it is research that provides all learners with the critical capacities to take a full role in society.

“However, if economic concerns are pre-eminent, then business may not want critical students, but students who can learn what they are given by those in power (teachers in teaching-only universities, and then successive employers) and be productive as they move from job to job throughout their careers as a form of economic capital.”

He poses a further question: if a university does not produce knowledge, then where does university knowledge come from?

Professor Peter Whiteford, dean of the Faculty of Graduate Research at Victoria University of Wellington, is confident teaching-only universities won’t come into play any time soon. He meets regularly with other deans of graduate studies and doesn’t get any sense that there are moves underway in any of the universities to go down this road.

“On the contrary, we are all looking for ways to strengthen our research base and our research profiles.

“Quite apart from the financial incentives, and the legislative requirements, most academic staff I know get a great deal of enjoyment out of their research, out of combining research with teaching, and out of supervising postgraduate students who are doing research.

“Any move to a teaching-only university just wouldn’t work – it would be impossible to recruit or retain the best staff, you’d lose credibility as a university, and eventually you’d lose students, too,” he says.

Professor Neil Boister, associate dean postgraduate at the University of Waikato’s Faculty of Law, agrees that research opportunities are a major draw card for staff.

“Most of the smartest and most able teachers in a university are actually drawn to the job because of the opportunity it gives them to involve themselves in the academic debate – i.e. research. In my experience, people who are good at research are usually good at teaching and administration. Most would leave if this became a teaching-only institution that would lead to an immediate dumbing down of the quality of the staff.”

He also believes that because of voter pressure, teaching-only institutions would inevitably be located outside of the major metropolitan areas, which would hamper the ability of students outside these areas to attend a university.

“The upshot of this is that it would inevitably lead to a return to the reservation of university education in the true sense of the word for the upper echelons of society. I doubt very much whether ‘well off of Remuera’ will want their children attending a teaching-only institution because of the label it will carry.”

On the subject of prestige, Dr Peter Coolbear, director of Ako Aotearoa (National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence) believes that underlying the debate around teaching-only universities is “a real issue around status”.

“The status of a degree awarded by a research-active university is often held in higher regard than a degree from a teaching-only university irrespective of the quality and relevance of the teaching and learning.”

As ITPs have gradually moved to expand their degree delivery, they have to build up their research component to fulfill their statutory requirements. Dr Coolbear says this raises some questions, including: has that really impacted on the quality of delivery of degree teaching and learning?

“From my perspective, the jury is out on this. We run the annual Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, and many of our national award winners are both great teachers and great researchers. In some ways, the research they do makes them great teachers, but they actively work on the connections. Equally many great teachers do not do research.”

He believes funding is a key issue in the debate.

“The way research is funded is much more competitive than the way teaching is funded, so institutions are much more strategic about delivering quality research than quality teaching.”

Because of this, he believes that in universities, there’s very clearly a research-led expectation on staff, which in essence means teaching often comes second.

“The teaching experience may be wonderful, but the strategic priority is research. We see the universities doing some really good things in teaching and learning but the stakes are much higher for individual staff to be good researchers than good teachers. They probably feel more accountable to the research they do than the teaching they do.”

Dr Coolbear explains that one of the reasons Ako Aotearoa was established in 2007 was to shine the spotlight on teaching during a time when universities were becoming more and more focused on research.

“We aim to balance the equation so we paid as much attention to teaching and learning as we did to research.”

He concedes there are no easy answers.

“In the end, it’s all about the individual institutes deciding what their priorities are and achieving a balance.”

In the Tertiary Education Union’s July newsletter, TEU vice president and chair of the union’s Industrial and Policy Committee, Sandra Grey, weighed in on the debate, posing an interesting question.

“We know that universities must have a research component to teach degree-level and above. But what happens when teaching starts to slip off the radar? Could we have institutions entirely made up of researchers? Is that still a university?

“Our members tell us they appreciate a comfortable balance between teaching and research that gives them the time to do both and allows them to bring their own work into the classroom.

“Any deregulation that allowed universities to split into teaching-only and research-only institutions would also raise big questions for the place of polytechnics. While most ITPs do not teach degree-level or above, those that do are required to have research conducted in those areas. If a university was to drop its research component, it would be difficult to distinguish it from a polytechnic,” she said.

“This debate is largely about definitions and what constitutes a university and a polytechnic. But it is also about what kind of workplaces we want to
work in.” 

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