Teaching or Research?

A new NBER paper asks why universities reward faculty on the basis of research productivity despite making most of their money from teaching. One theory is that top researchers being located in an institution increases the signalling value of the degrees awarded in the Institution. Another is that screening faculty on the basis of good teaching is very difficult and that screening them on the basis of research is more feasible and that good researchers are likely to be good teachers and to transmit knowledge at a much higher level than faculty who are not research active. A question that the paper leaves open but is an important one is what is best for students and society in terms of the allocation of university budgets. Should we be focusing on getting more teaching staff and having them spend more time in the lecture hall and classroom or more on attracting top research staff to improve the prestige of institutions and facilitate students being influenced by top researchers?

link here

27 replies on “Teaching or Research?”

Liam, is this as complicated as you think it is? Two of the three theories you highlight assume that good researchers have no positive effect on students. The third possibility suggests that “good researchers are likely to be good teachers and to transmit knowledge at a much higher level than faculty who are not research active.”

What about the possibility that those who are not research-active simply don’t have as much “knowledge” to “transmit”?

Do you really think students want to go through their college degrees being taught only by people who haven’t been involved in generating new thinking in their subject area in years? Would parents be happy to send their kids to a college where all the lecturers have skill sets from 20 years ago?

As a highly active and innovative researcher yourself, I’m somewhat surprised at your framing of this issue.

@Karl Whelan: “Do you really think students want to go through their college degrees being taught only by people who haven’t been involved in generating new thinking in their subject area in years?”

I suspect that most students don’t very much care about new thinking. A few do; they may end up as lecturers.

“Would parents be happy to send their kids to a college where all the lecturers have skill sets from 20 years ago?”

But parents’ experience is of sending their kids to schools where just that may apply. Indeed much of the technology of teaching (at first, second and third levels) seems to date from the middle of the nineteenth century.

I suspect that certainty may be more important to the majority of customers (students and parents) than innovation: a fixed syllabus, a predictable exam, guaranteed progress to a remunerative, state-protected profession. All this new knowledge stuff is a distraction, an irritant, a threat, which just makes things harder by making textbooks go out of date far too quickly (what’s wrong with Nevin’s *Textbook of Economic Analysis*?).

Quality of teaching is hard to measure, but quality of supervision can be assessed. See http://ideas.repec.org/p/esr/wpaper/wp224.html (forthcoming, Scientometrics). The paper finds that there is no correlation between research quality and supervision quality.

I have a mixed opinion on the question who should teach at university, and this is not based on more than anecdotical evidence. I studied at a world-class mathematics department. All the introductory courses were done by non-faculty, who were good teachers and did nothing but teach. The research-oriented faculty only showed up in the advanced courses. They were hopeless communicators, but by then classes were so small that it did not matter much.

I guess the same is true for economics. For an introduction to microeconomics, you just want a good teacher. For an advanced course in the financial sector, you want someone who has moved the frontier.

The basic question is what are the purposes of institutes of higher education? Is it necessary for those who are good at getting others to learn the skills of knowledge acquisition/application (good teachers at any level) to be also good at finding new problems to study, coming up with new ideas and/or expanding the application of knowledge?

Here in Ireland, there was a stage when the culture of academics institutions did not bother much with the application of knowledge. This led to the setting up of places like An Foras Taluntais for agricultural research, the Economic Research Institute for economic research. Geological Survey offices exist outside higher education.

Over the past few years, there has been a huge emphasis on (applied only) research in two areas eg. SFI’s original brief was IT and bio-pharma – driven by FDI considerations. Research on natural resources (eg. marine) and energy was excluded, although energy has recently been brought back into SFI

As Jerome Bruner put it in an article in 1970, the issue is still one The Skill of Relevance or the Relevance of Skill.

Underlying it all is the extent to which either teachers or researchers encourage/stimulate the sense of wonder that Aristotle put forward as the aim of education.

Whether there is an alignment of interests between the staffs of third level and what students want/expect is another matter. Auden had a view of this in his 1948 poem Under Which Lyre – which can be found here

“Do you really think students want to go through their college degrees being taught only by people who haven’t been involved in generating new thinking in their subject area in years?”
Potential covariances aside, I’d agree with Richard that initially it’s most important to be taught by someone who can teach well. The job to teach 2nd/3rd year econometrics, for example, should not be given on the basis of journals in Econometrica. It’s more important that the teacher appreciates that most students simply will not comprehend (x’x)^-1(x’y) for a couple of months.

For the vast majority of students, the research calibre of faculty only enters the equation at graduate level.

“Would parents be happy to send their kids to a college where all the lecturers have skill sets from 20 years ago?”
Anecdotally, I think you’re placing far too high a bound on the informational complexity parents base their decisions/advice on. Unless their kids are following in their professional footsteps, they’re unlikely to know much of the subject matter never mind the quality of individual departments. How many of your friends could advise their kids on whether to do Biology in TCD/UCD/DCU/NUIM?

“…despite making most of their money from teaching.”
I’d be very way of using this as any sort of benchmark because of the public nature of research. How much did the LSE profit from the Durbin-Watson test?

Karl – my only intent in framing the issue was to tee up the paper for debate. Perhaps the framing I used was a subconscious nod to increasing noises that are influencing the higher education debate in Ireland suggesting that research is undermining teaching. The point you raised is covered in the linked paper. As for my own personal opinion, its obvious to anyone who works with me that I place a huge value on research and on making sure that it influences graduate and undergraduate programmes. I think the case could be made a lot better if we had more research internships and undergraduate research competitions and if we started making more supports available for the very top students including assisting them in applying to the US. I posted before about this on the (far less popular) blog that I run myself. The link includes a link to a report commissioned by the National Science Foundation on including undergraduates in the research process.


Enda – Again, I wasn’t advocating making money as a goal of the university. Your point about Durbin is explored in the NBER paper as one motivation for focusing on research – namely that universities are usually non-profit entities that try to maximise things like legacy rather than profit.


You’re surprised by Liam’s framing of the issue. I’m surprised to hear you, a university lecturer, express the idea that good teaching is a matter of “transmitting” “knowledge” as though the lecturer has a big pile of it and the teaching operation involves simply shovelling it out to the students so that they assimilate it.

This is an antediluvian model of teaching, albeit one that is all too present at all levels in the Irish system. Effective teaching is a skill, one that requires just as much of a commitment in terms of time, energy and resources as does research.

As for research itself, it is time we stopped acting as though all of the valuable investigations that anyone is doing in the university today is somehow to be aligned with the scientific model of discovery. Notably the humanities have been short-changed in the wholesale adoption of the Humboldtian one-size-fits-all model that says that discovery is the only thing worth doing. For one thing, it leaves little room for the kind of national and international centuries-long conversation about who we are and what we should do that seemingly has no place for expression in this society anywhere but in the university and specifically in humanities departments. To call this “research” or to denigrate it because it does not conform to the scientific model of research is to misunderstand–profoundly–what the mission of a university is traditionally and ought to be still. The university is the only place where that centuries-long conversation (in which Hegel and Kant and Hume are all interlocutors with one another as well as with today’s students) continues. And we are poorer as a society if it does not, if it is supplanted by a culture where nothing but discovery counts, a culture that sees the entire virtue of the past in its status as harbinger of the present.

This is, in part, why the current UCD/TCD “Innovation Alliance” is both mind-numbingly stupid and breathtakingly arrogant. Universities have existed for centuries but apparently it took geniuses of the likes of the heads of UCD and TCD to make the “discovery” that “innovation” is a “third pillar” alongside teaching and research. This initiative is to research what CDOs are to debt and the consequences will be similar. But only Ireland will have bought the snake oil this time and we’ll be the academic laughing stock of the world.

But I digress…

@Richard Tol: “All the introductory courses were done by non-faculty, who were good teachers and did nothing but teach. The research-oriented faculty only showed up in the advanced courses. They were hopeless communicators, but by then classes were so small that it did not matter much.

I guess the same is true for economics. For an introduction to microeconomics, you just want a good teacher. For an advanced course in the financial sector, you want someone who has moved the frontier.”

I have some experience of design of non-conventional courses at third level. What’s missing from the discussion, I think, is a focus on what is taught as opposed to how well it is taught. And within that, I think the difficulty lies in getting across to students what it means to ***do*** economics (or whatever). After five or six years of secondary school, students have one understanding of what learning is about. But (in my experience) there is insufficient attention, in the early years at third level, to changing that understanding. It may be possible to go through a primary degree (and, dare I say it, a taught masters) with the model of learning acquired in second-level education and without gaining any understanding of the links between learning and research.


The “transmitting knowledge” phrase was in Liam’s original post and was not my creation. And whatever about Hegel, Kant, and Humboldt, I can assure you that both Liam and I fully appreciate that effective teaching requires a substantial commitment of time. For example, this stuff


takes plenty of time to prepare properly.

Yes – the “knowledge transmission” was my fault! I should be careful with my phrasing particularly among impressionable economics professors.

The SFI Stokes process is one example of a concerted effort to attract major research talent into Irish universities. It will be a while before the effects of this process are seen through but the question of whether the money spent on this would have been better spent on direct improvement of courses for undergraduate students (e.g. better facilities, more tutorials, more contact hours) is one example of the type of issues being thrown out in this debate. Similarly, the PRTLI cycles (now in the fifth round) have provided hundreds of millions of research funding to colleges. All of this takes administration and so on to keep going so people have argued that it has distracted college resources away from teaching. Of course if you believe that teaching is poorer quality without good research and good researchers then these arguments are less compelling.


Of course, if you believe that things like PRLTI yield a sufficiently direct return independent of teaching benefits that outweigh any displacement effects then there is no real need to worry about whether the top researchers are good teachers. Just let them specialise at what they are good at.

You would have to wonder whether Tyler and Brian are related. Cowen’s argument reminds me of a paper from a few years back comparing universities to medieval manners where research funding attainment is the equivalent of crusading and teaching the equivalent of pastoral care!

Houck, James P.

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:ags:umaemp:8443&r=edu

Few institutions puzzle outsiders as much as the modern university. Even insiders may not grasp the primal essence of its life and behavior. The sheer size and diversity of many universities defeats orderly consideration. We adopt crude simplifications or, worse, numbing obfuscation. This is entirely unnecessary. The core of university life can be illuminated clearly through the prism of a rich and beguiling metaphor. This metaphor requires only that we see today’s university as a thinly disguised feudal society such as existed in Europe during the 11th or 12th century A.D. In this medieval context, many otherwise baffling modern mysteries in academe become transparent.

Regarding the Richard and Frances paper : a very nice effort indeed. One problem of course is that it is nescessarily limited to the ACADEMIC family tree. If one has students who take a phd and who then go to non-academic environments where publication of citable papers is not the metric, what then?

The paper unapologetically focusses on one particular aspect.

If I recall correctly, we do refer to one or two papers that assess “teaching quality” by means of start wages and life-time earnings of former students. This is problematic in many ways, and can only be applied to the past quality of the school rather than the current quality of the individual professor.

In terms of actually evaluating the quality of teachers, there is a lot of problems with some standard metrics. Using grades is self-evidently wrong though sometimes used. Student satisfaction scores have some merit but (i) are determined by students expectations and (ii) might be determined by things that people would commonly agree are not legitimate lecturer quality attributes e.g. I was satisfied because the lecturer gave an easy exam. It has been suggested that alumni be used to rate the quality of teachers as they can, from a distance, judge how good the lecturer was and how much they gained from the course. Agreeing a public measure of teaching quality would be one way for those who really believe that good teachers are being disenfranchised to contribute.

The commodification of learning is a multi-decade trend and is likely to result in fewer institutions of note, yet with many more students overall.
The original concept of an institution which governed itself has disappeared. Most are now dependent upon banks and governments for fees. (Banking capital crisis may start to affect student numbers in some countries?)
With independence, the institution sets the agenda. It can prize research or teaching or a mix of both. But the need to pay for the institution means that teaching is primary. A research heavy institution now tends to have many direct business connections and the research may be commercial in confidence as they say in Oz. Another restriction on academic freedom.
Science is now so governed by grants that charities, business entities and the defence industry direct the fields of endeavour.
Thus there appears to be competition but in reality, the institutions collaborate more often, not merely within one nation. The paymasters dictate and the slaves comply. By concentrating on a micro aspect the paper is truly academic.

While no doubt of academic interest whether research commitments offer a net improvement to the quality of teaching, the issue is better resolved by allowing the university’s customers greater choice and market control of the product.

Bring in fees and let the kids and their parents vote with their feet on what kind of lecturers they want. To the extent that policy has a role, it is in ensuring information is available to help these customers decide.

Then we get a nice choice matrix: Some unis will go for classroom presentation, others for research. Some might go whole hog for both.

Price accordingly, and the market positions will answer your question.


I dare you have never set foot in a contemporary Irish university. If you had, what you would realise is that most students want one and only one thing: the highest grades possible obtained with the minimum effort. If you offered the average university student today the following deal, a large majority of them would jump at it: you will get straight As in all of your courses on condition that you not attend any and you learn nothing. Those of you who are lecturers, try surveying your students (anonymously) on it. I wager you’ll be shocked.

Grades buy a parchment and a parchment buys a job and a job buys material things which are the sole justification possible for a human life. That’s where the market-based approach to education ultimately leads. That sort of crass materialism is the only philosophy most students will ever be acquainted with. Which is to say, if you’re planning to let the “market control the product” you might as well close down the universities and replace them with a combination of summer camps and parchment factories.

Folks, this topic of ‘Teaching v Researching – has been flogged-to-death, several times. Researching is a specific technical type of activity, whilst teaching is another. Contemporary third-level institutions usually emphasize the ‘research’ bit as part of undergraduate training – hence the reliance on research ability for appointments, etc. Teaching on the other hand is a highly skilled activity – you need to be formally trained in three separate areas: (i) a specific subject area, (ii) the generic skills of teaching, and (iii) the specific teaching skills related to the subject you are teaching. This last set of skills is critical. Testing and assessing for teaching skills can be done – not easy, but requires Master Teachers. My own experience from the undergrad benches, varies from the truly dreadful to very good. My recommendation: no one should be permitted to provide a course of lectures to undergrads (postgrads are different) who does not hold a specific third-level teaching qualification. No exceptions!

Brian P

Agree with you all the way, had some great lecturers, had some terrible ones. No idea how good they were at research. Didn’t care at the time.
My aim as an undergraduate in college
1. Avoid the world of work for a further 4 years and have a good time.
2. Finish with a degree that would get me a good job in my chosen profession.
Both aims were achieved.
I would have thought for the vast majority of students teaching the basics of the degree is a university’s primary aim. No problem with the idea of throwing in a bit of radical thinking and new ideas but the core has to be the graduates leave equipped to do what the degree is aimed at – be it engineering, economics, medicine, dentistry etc

The PAE group have been active for several years and have been consistently debating that standard economics training is too narrow. Economics research has changed so much in the last five years that a lot of their original emphasis on economics holding too rigid a view of mankind is almost outdated now. However, holding a debate about how undergrad economics is taught would be interesting and should definitely happen, particularly in finance but this is for another thread!

Liam, the teaching of undergrad economics may indeed need a ‘facelift’. However this is difficult to achieve given that those charged with providing the actual ECON courses are themselves ‘graduates’ of economic courses! Finite Resources, Fossil Fuels and Entropy are interesting topics – could they be incorporated into ECON 10040 and some follow up- in ECON 200xx? For a contrarian on Finance try Frederick Soddy.

Brian P

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