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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 9 | Sep. 4, 2003

University Teaching, University Research: Conflict and Co-operation

Two senior UBC academics look for balance

By Cristina Calboreanu

The relationship between teaching and research in modern Canadian universities is a complicated one.

While some analysts claim that the two successfully reinforce each other for the benefit of students, others argue that, in fact, research and teaching compete for prestige and resources.

Over the last decades, Canadian universities have invested ever-larger amounts of financial and human resources in the development of a strong research base. Currently, university research in Canada represents direct investments estimated at $6.8 billion annually and involves more than 100,000 faculty, technicians, and students. Through its various funding bodies, the federal government invests over $1.3 billion annually in university research.

Meanwhile, funding for teaching and basic infrastructure has been cut back by provincial governments. Issues such as class sizes and the tenured faculty / student ratio are constantly plaguing universities, and full-time enrolment is expected to increase 20 to 30 per cent by 2011.

UBC Reports invited two senior UBC academics to discuss the relationship between research and teaching.

Donald Brooks is a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and chemistry. An alumnus who joined UBC in 1974, he was appointed Associate Vice-President, Research in July 2001. He plays a leading role in building UBC’s research capacity and competitiveness by assisting faculty to take full advantage of new funding initiatives and by promoting and co-ordinating interdisciplinary research.

Allan Tupper a is a professor of political science. He was appointed Associate Vice-President, Government Relations in February 2002. His research interests are in the areas of Canadian politics, public management and public policy, as well as North American higher education, the Supreme Court of Canada and Canadian provincial politics. He is the author, with Tom Pocklington, of No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren’t Working (published by UBC Press), a poignant critique of the structure and functioning of modern Canadian universities.

Teaching vs. research: what do you think is a university’s primary function?

[Don Brooks] I think it depends on what kind of university you’re talking about: are you talking about UBC, or are you talking about a university? Universities are of various sorts, there are some universities that are clearly focused on undergraduate teaching, that don’t have a significant graduate program; then you come to a place like UBC, research-intensive in all of the faculties, across all the disciplines. We choose to do research, we attract good faculty but we want people who have a good research background as well as the potential for strong teaching, so I don’t think UBC has one primary function. I think we have the functions of teaching and doing research, and I don’t think they are very different.

[Allan Tupper] I think universities are unique because they are society’s principal institutions for the analysis of ideas. No other institution in modern society is exclusively dedicated to the analysis of ideas, and that, to me, is the essence of the university -- less so its functions. Many other institutions can undertake functions, but none has that more general obligation and duty and characteristic of being a community of people dedicated to the larger ideas that shape their society, generating them, in the sense of certain forms of research, analyzing them, in the sense of reflective inquiry, criticizing them. Everyone essentially argues there are three principal roles of a university: teaching, research, and public service, in all their dimensions. Of these, teaching is the pre-eminent duty of the university -- it is not possible or desirable to try to generate a strong research base either nationally or within a university without basing that upon the strongest possible undergraduate teaching, which is foundational to all forms of research.

How do you see the relationship between research and teaching?

[Don Brooks] I find them inextricably linked in many ways. I went through Honours Physics myself here at UBC, and I can remember physicists that taught us enlivening the lecture by talking about the person they did their PhDs with, or famous people they worked with, or famous stories in the physics world. I wouldn’t necessarily describe them all as great teachers, some of them were really quite boring and we would have liked to send them to a little teaching school. But they got me excited about physics, and at the end of the day, I don’t remember particularly what the lectures were about, but I certainly took away that kind of excitement, and that wouldn’t have been there if those folks hadn’t done research themselves. I know that some of our biggest courses are taught by some of our best research people, and they get fantastic reviews, because they can bring that background to the classroom. Certainly we would like to have the best research people be the best teachers; that would be an ideal situation. I do think there are issues -- and they are recognized around the community -- around delivering quality undergraduate education to non-Honours students. You’re going to ask me how to solve this -- I don’t have the answer; however I don’t think the answer is don’t do research, that’s not acceptable socially or to the government, or to most of the faculty.

[Allan Tupper] It all depends on what you mean by research: if you define research in the classical sense of what we call reflective inquiry - deep, disciplined thinking about your subject and about how your subject relates to other subjects and about the major questions in those fields, what we know and don’t know - that form of research fundamentally strengthens the teaching activities of the university, because the earlier years of university must establish the foundations and the major dimensions. If you mean teaching the particular specialized research activities of modern university professors as part of your curriculum, that’s where we part company with a lot of people, because it might be interesting in the short term, but it doesn’t establish the broader foundations of learning. So in other words, the teaching and research relationship is very multifaceted: it can be very powerfully reinforcing, if you have a very expansive view of research. It can be quite narrow and stale if you have a narrow definition of research. Under certain circumstances it just becomes an assertion in a big university that teaching and research reinforce each other beneficially, when, in fact, there’s substantial evidence by the very practices of the university that they don’t reinforce each other, that they actually conflict.

While Ottawa’s investment in university research has grown by 54 per cent since 1998, funding for teaching and basic infrastructure has been cut back by provincial governments. Canadian universities face a projected 20 to 30 per cent increase in enrolment over the next 10 years. How will these growing pressures affect the overall quality of teaching in Canadian universities?

[Don Brooks] Provincial governments want us to train more students, and they’re not telling us how to do that; they are willing to let us be creative. But they’re not giving us a lot more resources, so we’re not increasing the numbers very much. I think there’s a fairly well understood balance there. But I think there’s room for us, as we get more resources, to increase the number of students and increase the quality of the education they’re given. We just have to pay more attention to it, and get more people to pay more attention to it. If we are to increase enrolment, we’re going to have to have more teachers and more facilities; in that sense, it shouldn’t make a difference. But if we have to increase enrolment without receiving the necessary resources, then that’s going to pose a bigger challenge.

[Allan Tupper] My sense is that the federal government is increasingly cognisant of the fact that universities are very unique institutions with a highly developed set of interdependent functions, and that the tremendous strengthening of the research capacity, which now exceeds that of most other countries, will be followed, over the next decade, by a much larger federal presence in most of the other activities of the universities. The provincial governments have pursued quite vigorous cost-containment strategies in their educational, health, and social assistance systems for more than a decade. I think that will begin to change -- the question is only how far have different institutions, jurisdictions, fallen behind. Higher education is central to an advanced society, and the provincial governments have great roles in that -- I think in the next 10 to 15 years either they will aspire to a much larger role in rebuilding the institutions in partnership with the federal government, or else the federal government will, as I said earlier, do it themselves. And there will be some very substantial pressures on provincial governments that will lead them to act. So I’m not particularly pessimistic on that front, actually. That said, we will have to do things on our own -- it’s not exclusively a public policy question, there are certain things that universities will have to do to deal with greater numbers of students in more creative ways. You want to use these pressures to be creative, not to simply rely on what you’ve done before and say, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve done before with more people. We’ll have to make some structural adjustments. Universities are very creative, they’re very adaptable, and I think the next decade and beyond will really put that adaptability and creativity to the test.

[for Don Brooks] Canadian universities perform a third of the country’s research and development. What makes a university, as opposed to a specialized institute, an appropriate environment for research activities?

One reason that we do research in universities is to train researchers: almost all the places where research is done that aren’t universities train no graduate students. Besides, in a corporate environment, and even in government institutes, it’s quite different, they just don’t have the same mix and the kind of excitement; 5 o’clock, most people go home. You come to UBC on the weekends, and you find all kinds of labs full of faculty and students, so I think there’s a very strong argument on the research training side for universities doing research, as well as other centres.

[for Allan Tupper] In your recent book [No Place to Learn], you argue that “Teaching and research are generally in conflict with each other. The mutual enrichment thesis is an impediment to necessary university reform. ” How and why do university teaching and research come into conflict?

I make no presumptions that university professors wilfully place research in front of teaching. But research is very time consuming and leads to an orientation towards one’s professional colleagues, and not directly towards one’s students -- not in every instance, but in a general sense. One other issue is the transformation of the professor from a thinker to an expert, and it’s a big difference. An expert knows a lot about something small, a thinker knows or tries to know a lot about a lot of things, and how they interconnect. We have to re-establish that everybody’s duty around a university is to be a thinker, not simply an expert, and that’s really where the teaching and research come into conflict again, the question of the breadth and depth of all of us in a modern university. Are we increasingly experts at the expense of what people generally used to aspire to be, a thinker? That balance needs to be re-struck.

[for Don Brooks] In the October 2002 issue of the University Report Card, UBC was rated 19 (among 29 universities) in quality of education. One UBC student was quoted as saying “Many of the faculty fail to put any effort into teaching, which I feel is what university is all about. Learning ahead of research, teach the students well and we will come.” How does the strong focus on research affect the amount of time and effort university professors put into teaching?

I think it’s terrible to hear a quote like that, I really don’t like to hear it at all. What do we do about it? I don’t have the answer, but I think we do have to undergo a process to look at the problem in a balanced manner, particularly with respect to undergraduate students. I think the graduate training is much different, people like to do it because graduate students are close to them, being in the labs and that kind of thing. If you ask most graduate students to comment on the quality of their graduate education, they’re really positive. And I think they are because we do have a good research community, we do have good facilities and it’s an exciting place in the research world. I think we do a good job there and I think there are lots of examples where that excitement gets rubbed off on the undergraduates, but it’s got to be the undergraduate himself who is excited, or excitable.

[for Allan Tupper] A 1998 report commissioned by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada concluded that “university research is society’s most fertile environment for training people and generating new ideas”: universities produce knowledge and also equip individuals with the skills necessary to put this knowledge to work. Why do you consider this model flawed?

We fully understand that research is essential to a health society, and not only to a healthy society, to a very strong and vigorous economy. Again, the question is what we mean by research, where it should be done and in what capacity. Universities are distinguished from other research institutions by the fact that they also must teach. Eighty to 90 per cent of our students are undergraduate students; we do not doubt for a second the fundamental importance of research, but we should not forget the fundamental importance of our instructional roles in the deepest sense as institutions. Universities are evolutionary, and developmental in a classic sense: they change all the time, they move into new areas, and so on; we have to be constantly looking at the balance and the way they’re adjusting. I think it’s time to re-examine where the institutions are going.

UBC’s Strategic Research Plan states that “UBC’s goal is to excel internationally in research and teaching, and to be a leader in discovery and scholarship that is the wellspring of scientific, technological, social, cultural, and organizational innovation in the nation and the world. ” What measures should the university take to achieve excellence in both research and teaching?

[Don Brooks] I have only been associated with executive activities here for three years, but even over that period, I now hear a lot more about the quality of teaching and the concerns about the diluted classes and senior people not teaching enough. There are some creative activities ongoing and we could do more to enhance that side without it costing us more. We are making a tremendous push to enhance our research success, to hire strong research people. It’s getting a lot of attention and we’re having a lot of success -- we’re ranked number two nationally in NSERC and SSHRC funding, number three in CIHR in the last competition, and we’re number one in CFI in terms of dollars raised, it really is working. We are hiring people from all over the world. We don’t yet have the international reputation we deserve, but we’ll get it, slowly. The research side is actually going pretty well. I don’t think we have yet brought the same energy to bear on the teaching side -- I think that’s something we need to discuss more as a community. We can go out competitively and hire more people if we are more successful at research because research activities can fund your salary for five years or more if you get a personal award. By this means we can build up our total faculty numbers somewhat, and those people are still supposed to teach, so that would help.

[Allan Tupper] There’s two or three that I think really are required to move this forward. First of all, the very great pressures for physical space in universities that allows people to interact. We’ve all witnessed, in all of our institutions over time, a steady whittling away of common space where people actually interact together and can do so in a reasonable way. You really know you’ve got a good course if students are doing a lot of work on it outside of the classroom. To do that, though, you have to have some capacity -- and I’m not talking about luxurious surroundings, but you have to have good physical space. It’s a very important thing, and one that has come back onto the agenda, if you just look at a number of things we’re doing here. The Barber Learning Centre for example, is a tremendous kind of thing. And I think another thing we have to do is to talk a lot more openly and freely about these sorts of questions -- there’s been a tendency to regard some of the questions about how we conduct our activity as non-debatable, contentious, or wrong, and so on. And I think we need to have throughout our institutions a very wide range of debate about our internal priorities -- it’s not just what governments do, and what society expects, it’s our capacity to respond. We are autonomous, we have our own capacity to shape our destinies, and we can’t forget that.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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