How universities allocate resources – and how academics allocate their own time – between research and teaching is a perennial problem in higher education. The labour market for research is intensely competitive and truly global; while the market for academics focused on teaching is notable by its lack of competition. An obvious result is that academics’ promotion prospects depend primarily on research, with well-established metrics driving assessments, the equivalent of which don’t exist for teaching. Gervas Huxley and Mike Peacey signal an urgent need to provide information on and strengthen incentives for teaching, suggesting a new metric that accounts for class size when measuring contact hours. A measure such as this will capture some of the dimensions of quality that truly matter and directly address the balance between teaching and research.

What do universities not do? To answer this question we must start with what they produce. The two main outputs are teaching and research, and these outputs are sold in two separate markets. How resources are allocated between them is the fundamental decision problem facing every university. From our perspective as academics this is a time-allocation problem: is a marginal hour best spent on teaching or research?

These two markets operate in very different ways. The market for research is intensely competitive, with universities and individual academics competing in one of the few truly global labour markets. A UK job posting for a research-active academic will receive applications from academics who have graduated from universities across Europe, North America, and beyond. One consequence of this is that a promising PhD student with one or two publications in top ranked journals is in a position to insist on minimal teaching in order to ensure that she can focus on what the labour market (and her employer) values: research. Another consequence is a transfer market for productive researchers.

By contrast, in the market for academics focused on teaching price signals are weak and competition is notable by its absence. This means that a truly outstanding teacher is unlikely to be poached – even by a nearby university. The obvious result is that within universities promotion depends primarily on research.

It is far from obvious that a market for “knowledge” should work. Most of the knowledge produced by universities satisfies the conditions for a pure public good. As Thomas Jefferson explained:

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea. […] Its peculiar character […] is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine.”

Markets for public goods usually work poorly precisely because property rights do not exist. By contrast property rights for tuition are easily enforced. This gives rise to the paradox that universities “reward research and sell education”.

How has a market for something as nebulous as research developed such powerful incentives? Part of the explanation is that the quality of research can be readily observed. Recruitment panels have neither the time, nor the expertise, to read every publication from every applicant. The process of shortlisting will rely heavily on the journals applicants have published in. For good or ill the academic labour market depends on peer review.

Following a paper he co-authored in Nature, Mike Peacey wrote in this forum discussing how the specific details of the publication process determine the efficiency of knowledge transmission. At the time (and still today), peer review was criticised for “concerns that many published research findings may be incorrect”. Whilst the paper suggested technological tweaks (e.g. post-publication peer review, prediction markets, and altmetrics) that could open up other channels for academics to promote their ideas, we nevertheless believe that peer review is hard to beat.

In the UK this debate is closely related to the merits of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), and the recently proposed Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). The REF ranks university departments by the quality of their research as judged by peer review. The REF therefore piggybacks on a well-established and highly sophisticated metric for assessing research. The result is that the ranking of departments produced by the REF reproduces a pre-existing pecking order created by the peer review process. One way to put this is to say that the REF produces few surprises – academics knowledgeable about their discipline can anticipate the outcome with accuracy – and this is particularly true of the highest ranked departments. A similar argument applies to the academic ranking of world universities. The Shanghai Jiao Tong index, for example, uses essentially the same metric, publications in peer-reviewed journals and makes little attempt to measure teaching.

Image credit: LT2 by University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

The fact that teaching is either not measured or given a low weighting in these world rankings has been the subject of much criticism but the reason is simple: it is much easier to evaluate the quality of a university’s research than its teaching. The introduction of the TEF in the UK is part of a process to develop metrics to assess teaching similar to those used to rank research. We are in no doubt about the urgent need to strengthen incentives for teaching. However, a process that attempts to mimic the metrics used to measure research is unlikely to succeed if the mechanisms that generate those metrics do not exist. One consequence of this is that the development of a global higher education market has decisively tilted the balance between teaching and research in favour of research. However, it does not follow that it is possible or even necessary to create a labour market for teaching that is anywhere near global.

Could peer review of teaching mimic the reward structure that seems to work for research? Peer review of teaching is usually undertaken by close departmental colleagues, with the objective of providing formative assessment. In theory it has the potential to both improve the teacher and measure the quality of their teaching. However the evidence is mixed – even when undertaken by independent, specifically trained assessors, it has been shown to be even less reliable than traditional student evaluations. Perhaps due to the amount of time pupils and observers have with the teacher. At best peer review of teaching is a useful tool for internal promotion, but it will never replicate the global labour market that results from peer-reviewed journal articles.

Our contribution to the TEF debate has been to suggest that prospective students should be provided information on the teaching they will receive. This seems especially important in light of our recent findings, published in Fiscal Studies. In our paper we define “teaching intensity” and highlight the importance of accounting for class size when measuring contact hours. Using the rights contained in the Freedom of Information Act we collected detailed information on the teaching received by students studying economics, history, and physics at 67 universities. We found that there was large variation across disciplines: on average students studying economics or history received less than half the teaching received by physics students. There was even larger variation within disciplines:  for example an economics student in the top decile receives almost five times as much teaching as an economics student in the bottom decile. A version of our Total Equivalent Adjusted Contact Hours (TEACH) metric, the Gross Teaching Quotient (GTQ), is being piloted for inclusion in the TEF.

We believe that a metric of this kind will capture some of the dimensions of quality that truly matter in higher education and, just as importantly, directly address the balance between teaching and research. The TEF can only succeed if it addresses this misallocation of resources and the inevitable consequences for the time academics allocate between teaching and research.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

Gervas Huxley is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol’s department of economics.

Mike Peacey is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at New College of the Humanities (NCH). He has a Doctorate in Economics (PhD) from the University of Bristol.

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