The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of a highly marketised English higher education system. With little government support, the fears around lost income resulted in yet more competition between institutions, without articulating ‘[the sector’s] underlying value to society’ (Jones, 2022). In this blog post (based on a paper jointly written with Emeritus Professor Monica McLean), I use the crisis of Covid-19 as a magnifying glass to look at the existing dysfunctions (see Trowler & Wareham, 2014) of the research and teaching link in England, exploring both sectoral discrepancies, and staff and student experiences.
A stratified university system is a crucible for inequities in knowledge production (research) and reproduction (teaching). Key resultant issues include the socially stratified entry into research- or teaching-focused institutions for students, with doctoral education and funding heavily tilted towards more selective institutions (see Smith McGloin & Wynne, 2022), as well as a leaky pipeline of research where the ratio of women (see Advance HE, 2018) and academics of colour (see Marandure, 2022) decreases within the hierarchy. Research assessments and university rankings predominantly reward ‘resource elites’, and funding attracts more funding (Hamann, 2018). The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding decisions data for 2015–2016 to 2019–2020 shows the institutional hierarchy at the top being fairly consistent across time and between types of funding. Institutions with above 100 individual fellowship applications have a better awarding rate and amass a larger pool of successful projects than those submitting 10 or fewer applications. These trends also hold when contextualising the funding application and award data with the total number of academic staff in the institutions. Similarly, 10 universities received half of UKRI’s Covid-19 research grants as listed in March 2021, while another 103 institutions shared the remaining projects.
‘A stratified university system is a crucible for inequities in knowledge production (research) and reproduction (teaching).’
A recent British Academy report suggested that while the relationship between research and teaching should be mutually reinforcing, structural issues persist. One third of all academics are on a fixed-term contract, with this figure rising to 44 per cent of teaching-only and 68 per cent of research-only staff. Precarity impacts negatively on staff identity, mental health, career planning, teaching quality, and whose research knowledge is produced (Leathwood & Read, 2020). Between 2015–2016 and 2019–2020, the number and ratio of teaching-only academics grew rapidly (from 26.5 per cent to 32.7 per cent), while in the same period, postgraduate taught student numbers grew by roughly 21 per cent, while undergraduate numbers grew by 4.9 per cent as the number of postgraduate research students declined, spelling ongoing equity and representation issues. The divergence of teaching and research further entrenches inequities faced by women and academics of colour with potential demoralising effect of a ‘spoiled identity’ of teaching-only academics (Nyamapfene, 2014).
The university spending controls at the start of the pandemic to avert major losses often included terminating short-term contracts, voluntary or compulsory redundancies, and restructures. The distribution of teaching, student-support and administration duties among remaining staff compounded existing workload issues. To understand the short-term ramifications of the pandemic on staffing across the UK higher education sector for the period between March 2020 and March 2021, we used Freedom of Information data from 40 institutions, employing almost half of the sector’s academics in 2019–2020. Those on research and teaching contracts were more likely to leave through voluntary severance schemes, whereas academics on research-only contracts were more likely to leave through compulsory redundancy. Conversely, it was predominantly teaching-only and research-only staff whose expiring fixed-term contracts were terminated – the flexibility here benefiting the institution, not the staff. Professional services roles also took a big hit at several institutions.
Regarding what research could (still) happen, universities prioritised externally funded, large-scale projects, as opposed to internally funded, smaller-scale work, impacting staff groups differentially. Principal investigators of large projects were much more likely to be white, male professors, as seen in UKRI data. The award rate for female principal investigators in 2018–19 across all research councils was 23.9 per cent (male PIs, 26.3 per cent); and 17.3 per cent for ethnic minority PIs (white PIs, 26.9 per cent, albeit with a high level of missing data). Similarly, the work of postgraduate research students was often deprioritised, for instance, when needing laboratory access.
Institutional inequalities of research funding, short-termism in staffing, a drift towards teaching-only contracts and recent redundancies point to the fragility of the research and teaching nexus (McKinley et al., 2021). The inherently political nature of this link and its possible dysfunctions can be undone through building a more flexible, equitable and inclusive system to both students and staff, strongly rooted in the wider community (Jones, 2022), less obsessed with competition, and much more collaborative in nature (Naidoo, 2018).
Advance HE. (2018). Equality in higher education: Statistical report 2018. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/equality-higher-education-statistical-report-2018
Hamann, J. (2018). The production of research elites: Research performance assessment in the United Kingdom. In R. Bloch, A. Mitterle, C. Paradeise, & T. Peter (Eds.), Universities and the production of elites: Discourses, policies, and strategies of excellence and stratification in higher education (pp. 175–199). Palgrave Macmillan.
Hordósy, R., & McLean, M. (2022). The future of the research and teaching nexus in a post-pandemic world. Educational Review, 74(3), 378–401. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131911.2021.2014786
Jones, S. (2022). Universities under fire: Hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education. Palgrave Macmillan.
Leathwood, C., & Read, B. (2020). Short-term, short-changed? A temporal perspective on the implications of academic casualisation for teaching in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 27(6), 756–771. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2020.1742681
Marandure, B. (2022, October 17). Representation matters: Reflections on academia’s ‘leaky pipeline’. Higher Education Policy Institute [blog]. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2022/10/17/representation-matters-reflections-on-academias-leaky-pipeline/
McKinley, J., McIntosh, S., Milligan, L., & Mikołajewska, A. (2021). Eyes on the enterprise: Problematising the concept of a teaching-research nexus in UK higher education. Higher Education, 81, 1023–1041. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00595-2
Naidoo, R. (2018). The competition fetish in higher education: Shamans, mind snares and consequences. European Educational Research Journal, 17(5). https://doi.org/10.1177/147490411878483
Nyamapfene, A. (2014). The teaching-only academic role in research intensive universities: A case of spoiled identity? Advance HE. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/teaching-only-academic-role-research-intensive-universities-case-spoiled-identity
Smith McGloin, R., & Wynne, C. (2022). Structures and Strategy in Doctoral Education in the UK and Ireland. UK Council for Graduate Education. https://ukcge.ac.uk/resources/resource-library/structures-and-strategy-in-doctoral-education-in-the-uk-and-ireland
Trowler, P., & Wareham, T. (2014). Tribes Territories Research and Teaching: Enhancing the teaching research nexus literature review. Advance HE. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/tribes-territories-research-and-teaching-enhancing-teaching-research-nexus-literature