by Tom Clark and Rita Hordósy
Within the landscapes of higher education, the integration of research and teaching is now seen as a crucial part of ‘the student experience’. Terms such as ‘research-led’ ‘research-intensive’, ‘research-oriented’, and ‘research-based’ are frequently used in the marketing strategies of HEIs to demonstrate the prestige, status and expertise of their teaching portfolios. It is tacitly taken for granted that research necessarily enhances the experience of learning. However, given the increases in the cost of university study, the continuing emphasis on ‘graduate outcomes’, and the popular and political denigration of expertise in a post-truth society, how contemporary students are responding to the emphasis on research remains a key point of concern.
Broadly speaking, the literature on what is termed ‘the research/teaching nexus’ (RTN) has focussed on four issues: the general lack of association between research outputs of staff and teaching evaluations; the differences that exist between and within HEIs in respect to the RTN; the attitudes of staff towards their different roles as researchers and/or teachers; and, the experiences of students, which are not necessarily positive. The vast majority of this empirical work has relied on research designs that are cross-sectional. Unfortunately, this means that the changing nature of the nexus as it is experienced by students across their degree has been largely unexplored.
Taking a ‘whole student lifecycle’ approach, we have followed a diverse group of undergraduates within a ‘research-intensive learning environment’ as they made their way into, through, and beyond their programme of study (n=40). Interviewing them on three occasions throughout their studies, we sought to examine the dimensions through which students understood the relationship between research and teaching, and how these experiences are variously constrained and enabled.
Our findings suggest that the RTN is a dynamic process of development that is actively and affectively experienced by students across their degree programme. Multidimensional in nature, experiences of the RTN also changed over time. The key phases of development can be seen in Table 1.
Table 1. Phases of development in the research/teaching nexus
|Phase one||Phase two||Phase three|
|Focus of |
|Relationship with |
|Experience of |
|Nature of |
However, because students also developed feelings and reactions to the nexus – and regardless of pedagogical practice or curriculum design – not all of the undergraduates we interviewed progressed through each phase in a uniform manner. The nexus could constrain as much as it enabled. These restraints were broadly concerned with a diminishing interest in the nature and utility of research; the lack of sufficient scaffolding around experiences of research and teaching; the perceived distance between students and researchers; and, issues related to participation, such as ethnic and/or class related identities. How students conceived and experienced the RTN was contingent on, and understood in respect to, other aspects of their lives. This included emergent individual interests, experiences of other students, developing career goals, and the wider contexts of higher education policy and practice within which participation takes place.
Taken together, our results highlight the need to problematize the normative presentation of research in terms of its relationship with learning and teaching. Research is not something that can be used with teaching to instantaneously produce better student experiences or graduate outcomes. In the context of an increasingly competitive global graduate labour market, there can be individual and collective benefits in connecting teaching with research, but these should not simply be assumed. Indeed, it remains important for HEIs to engage meaningfully with the RTN to understand how and why it is experienced in the way that it is, and, who might be excluded in the process. It should not be used as a cynical vehicle to justify academic research in the face of the rising costs of higher education level study.
Dr Tom Clark is a Lecturer in Research Methods at the University of Sheffield. He is interested in all aspects of method and methodology, particularly with respect to learning and teaching. His other interests have variously focussed on the sociology of evil, student experiences of higher education, and football fandom. His textbook How to do your social science dissertation or research project will be published by Oxford University Press in the summer of 2019.
Dr Rita Hordósy is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester. Her interests concern social justice issues in education, post-compulsory education trajectories, and comparing educational phenomena between national settings. She tweets as @rhordosy.