Universities create and transmit knowledge, and academics make different individual contributions to those two missions – research and teaching. Many universities now allow staff to specialise so that some concentrate on research, others on teaching, and others balance both – there are bowlers, batters, and all-rounders.

My own institution is proud of the shift we have made to supporting Education Focussed academics. We have worked hard to define a proper career path that relies on agreed measures of achievement, measures that generate the same sort of status that we associate with top researchers. When we started most managers could name ten top researchers – easily. Now we can name just as many highly respected Education Focussed staff.

The question I get asked most is do we require our Education Focussed staff to publish educational research papers? My answer is no.

Education Focussed staff are not required to do research, so we do not insist they publish educational research.

This surprises some people. But I think it is central to the success of the whole project.

What happens in practice is that some of our Education Focussed staff continue to do research but they do it in their disciplines, rather than switching to become educational researchers. A few make the switch, but really only as many as switch between other disciplines during their careers. Everyone keeps up with academic developments in their fields – fulfilling regulator TEQSA’s requirement for “scholarship”, but not everyone publishes educational research papers.

Why don’t I push Education Focussed university staff to publish educational research? Let me explain. I’m a trained molecular biologist. I can do research in molecular biology and teach it. I’ve been trained to do both and have developed the right skills. I’ve never been taught educational research and I don’t think I would have much impact.

I consider doing good educational research to be particularly challenging. Even more challenging than research in molecular biology.

In molecular biology we have the problem that most things don’t work, but when they do, we certainly notice and we sing about it. In education the problem is different. It is not that nothing works, but that almost every way of teaching works. The students end up learning something, no matter how bad the teaching strategy or teacher. So, it is hard to come up with results that really stand out. It may be harder to have global impact via educational research than it is in molecular biology.

Trained educational researchers (and a few natural geniuses) know the right educational questions to ask, but novices like me shouldn’t expect to just jump in and change the educational world on account of our training in molecular biology.

I should certainly share my experiences in teaching with colleagues and I do (we have many new forums for sharing ideas related to teaching) but I don’t have the expertise to run educational research experiments that generate rock solid evidence. We have a School of Education that does educational research, and we have academics who do educational research in their disciplines and always have, but it makes no sense to insist that someone with a PhD in molecular biology suddenly re-invent themselves as an educational researcher…unless you are obsessed with the idea that all university academics must both research and teach.

Some managers are fixated on that but in practice even they make exceptions for casual staff whom they do not require to do research. To me the idea that every academic should be expected to both create and transmit knowledge was never sound and those institutions, who like UNSW, are championing diverse careers are merely recognizing the reality that good teams consist of batters, bowlers, and all-rounders – and always have.

Personally, I am so confident about UNSW’s research strengths that I see no need to bolster them by insisting that Education Focussed staff are conscripted to do research.

Finally, let me mention one symmetrical wrinkle – it relates to research fellows. Should they teach? I certainly welcome it when they do but I don’t feel it should be mandated. Some people argue that research fellows do teach by supervising PhD students. But to me this is mentoring and doesn’t make a significant contribution to the teaching load of a big university. If a research fellow wishes to teach then arrangements can be made for them to give lectures, or better still run labs or coordinate courses. It is impressive that some do.

We really do have diverse career paths now. Education focussed paths and research fellow paths. Academic roles that involve both teaching and research continue to predominate, and the weightings of activities can vary and change over time. The university generates its culture and fulfills its mission by the sum of all contributions, not by having an identical balance of teaching and research delivered by every academic.

People are different. Some have teaching in their DNA, others are born researchers, some enjoy both and develop as all-rounders. A good institution values all the contributions that serve its mission rather than insisting that everyone must be the same.

Merlin Crossley is DVC Academic Quality at UNSW


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