Teaching, Research and Election Day

Well it had to happen – during my brief and less than illustrious career as a blog writer, at some point antibodies were likely to be raised in response to something I wrote. And so it was with my last effort that summarised the outcome of the most recent FEB away-day. Apparently my statement that we need to untangle the concept of parity of esteem for research and teaching has caused concern is some quarters. So let me put the record straight. Firstly, anything written in the previous blog is not my view especially (although I fully endorse everything therein) – it summarises the collective thoughts arising from the Faculty Executive away-day.

To reiterate, the problem with the ‘parity of esteem’ concept is that it could lend weight to the notion that research and teaching are separate entities. It is clear however that they are inextricably linked. In my 30-odd years as an active researcher, I have taking pleasure in working on a number of ‘big’ problems that had the potential to change the world if I helped solved them (which was the case on precious few occasions!). In effect, by learning new techniques and concepts, I have been teaching myself. I also learned how to approach a difficult problem through logical thought process, how to deal with the many lows when something didn’t work – easily offset by the less frequent but much more powerful highs when a breakthrough was made – and so on. I also hopefully learned how to communicate my thoughts, ideas and results to peers worldwide.

As a Russell Group University, we strongly believe in the concept of research informed teaching. This is in effect an extension of the communication process, but to non-experts. However, it’s more than just communicating the most recent exciting results that haven’t made it into the textbooks – it’s about understanding how new knowledge is created, warts and all. That’s why, in the experimental sciences at least, a final-year laboratory project is critically important (and very expensive). As a result, our graduates will hopefully be highly skilled in problem-solving and communication, which are the two areas that employers frequently tell us are most important to them. It follows that the majority of our academics should be both practicing researchers as well as teachers. That’s not to say that we do not value the efforts of those who are exclusively focussed on learning and teaching, or indeed those focussed exclusively on research. A number of such academics is critical for the proper functioning of a modern University, but it’s hopefully clear that we need the majority of our staff to do both. Ultimately, we need to ensure that there is parity of esteem for those doing a good job in any aspect that contributes to the mission and vision of the organisation – and that includes more than just teaching or research.

Turning to a rather different matter, it’s election day! We wait with bated breath to find out who will be in government 24 hours from now (although there’s every likelihood that it might take longer than that to form a government). I don’t want to turn this into a Party Political piece (that would raise antibodies!) , but I must confess to being irritated by the way successive political parties use the education system as a political football. Assuming there is a change in Government of some description, you can bet that something will be tampered with. Having just recovered from the outcome of the Browne review and the new fees regime, we face the unwelcome prospect of further turmoil. Against this, there is unfortunately one likely certainty, namely a reduction in funding for research, irrespective of the successful party (or parties). We will need therefore to diversify our research income streams, including seeking them offshore. Therein lies a major project concerning our Singapore operation, about which I will hopefully be able to report in the next blog.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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