Teaching Spires

August 16, 2018

Universities should banish the notion of “publish or perish”, stop churning out second-rate research and put more effort into teaching.

It was Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the University of Berlin in 1809, who did most to spread the idea that universities are places of research. Until then, their sole job (their Mission) was to give students a broad education to prepare them for careers in the church or government. Humboldt argued that university professors should be scholars and researchers, as well as teachers. In the course of the 19th century, Humboldt's model of higher education spread first among the fast-growing universities of America, and then took hold in Europe. His idea has proved enormously successful. The world over, universities became centres of scientific advancement and hives of intellectual activity. Today academics study and pontificate on almost every subject under the sun, and they can claim to be the source of most new knowledge.

Nevertheless much academic research is dross, churned out merely to advance an academic's career. Worse, the "publish or perish" syndrome which dominates academia has devalued the original purpose of higher education—that is, education itself. At too many institutions, including many of the most famous, teaching is an after-thought and done poorly. The pursuit of research has gone too far. It is time to tilt the balance back towards education.


One way to do that would be for more universities and colleges to declare that education was their primary aim (and NOT research!) and to reward and promote their faculty on the basis of their teaching ability, rather than on how many papers they have published (!). In America, Britain and Australia, elite groups of universities have been pressing their governments to stop supporting mediocre research and to concentrate funding on a few centres of excellence (ie, themselves). Though self-serving, this argument makes sense. It would be better to have a smaller number of well-funded faculties doing leading-edge research than to have a larger number with inadequate funding doing little of real importance. Britain has already begun moving in this direction, but should go further.

However, if governments go down this route, they should not then penalise those institutions which concentrate on education. Government grants should recognize teaching excellence, as well as that in research. Unless more is spent on higher education, less will have to be spent on research.


This would be no bad thing. In America, there is growing disquiet about the proliferation of research papers and of academic journals eager to publish them. Earlier this year Social Text, a cultural-studies journal, published a paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries—Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", not realising that it was in fact a spoof. Alan Sokal, a physicist, had submitted it to demonstrate that any old gobbledygook could get published these days, provided it contained enough trendy references.

Even in institutions, such as America's liberal-arts colleges, which claim that teaching comes first, the perception among their staff is that research output, and not teaching excellence, is the key to career success. And some studies (by academics of course) have suggested that it is the quantity of research output, rather than the quality, which counts most. Remember the students.


With academia now a huge industry, many of Humboldt's arguments for stressing research no longer seem valid, at least not for all academics. Do university teachers really need to do research in order to keep up with developments in their field? In reality, they can do this by reading the best academic journals. In fact, academics who spend all of their non-teaching time on some abstruse piece of research may find it more difficult, not easier, to stay abreast! Many students offered the alternative of universities and colleges which strive for excellence in teaching, would probably choose them. Famous professors do enhance the prestige of their institutions, but few undergraduates ever get taught by them.

At the moment, only a handful of universities properly train their teachers to teach. Academics themselves still talk about their teaching "load" impeding their "opportunity" to do research. For many, these priorities should be reversed. Educating a nation's most promising young people should be seen as a challenging and rewarding career in its own right. The old nostrum "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" was always wrong. Good teaching requires great skill. As anyone who has attended university can testify, too many professors and lecturers can't do it.

By: Jan T.L Yap (Adapted from an article in The Economist, August 24, 1996)

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