Dean Forbes


International Network of Universities Seminar

Budapest, Hungary

September 2004

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University


Let me share with you the thoughts and reflections of an active, but over-stretched, teacher-researcher.

Talking about teaching and research immediately conjures two different interpretations:

•    How to use research on teaching practice to improve teaching.

•    How an academic might use their research to improve their teaching

My focus is on the latter.

Universities that pride themselves on their research often make the claim that their research improves what they do in teaching. 

I have myself said this many times.  “Flinders is a research university, so you know that the people that teach you are also creating and publishing knowledge”.  No-one has ever asked me to explain exactly why a student should be comforted by this claim.  No-one has ever asked me to prove the claim that this means that the teaching is better than it would be if it was not a research university.

Research-oriented universities continue to make these kinds of statements because it embellishes their brand in the market-place.  Their research reputation produces dual benefits, strengthening their research status, and adding to their appeal for students.


However, if we think critically about practices in universities, we can all think of instances where excellent researchers are poor teachers, and instances where excellent teachers have no research record.

Education research continually supports this, finding that in fact there is no clear correlation between teaching and research. 

So, is there a link between teaching and research, or is there no link?  I think there is, but we have to think about the form that it takes.


Teaching at university level needs to be well informed.  The content of what is taught needs to be up-to-date, and the teacher well grounded in the material they are dealing with.  Thus, it is assumed, those undertaking research are more likely to be better equipped, being more attuned to developments within their discipline.

This argument sometimes makes the claim that there is a clear link at postgraduate level, but not at the undergraduate level. I reject this distinction.  There is a difference, but it is not a yawning gap.  Practices remain consistent.

Overall, the general argument has two weaknesses.

First, researchers, we can assume, are well informed about the aspects of their discipline, or field of research, which are central to their research.  But researchers are generally specialized, so can we assume they are equally well informed about the areas in which they are teaching.  The answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

Second, non research active university teachers can be extremely well informed about their disciplines.

Thus it is scholarship that is more important to good teaching practice at the university level than research per se. All university teachers need to practice scholarship, and it must inform their teaching.  But there is still a need to have a clear approach to building the link between teaching and research.


Perhaps the best way of connecting teaching and research is through the focusing on learning.

The geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1809) said:

“the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student: both teachers and students have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge, and hence there is unity of research and teaching” (van Briesen)

The argument is now sometimes put that the significance of the connection between teaching and research is that both are learning activities.  Research is teaching oneself, and actively learning.  These are precisely the generic skills that teachers try and encourage, that is the active process of learning by their students.

Research is about the development of skills and understanding.  These involve searching, methodology, collection, analysis, critique, theory, understanding, remembering, applying.

Good teachers try to facilitate the development of those skills in their students.  They are also doing other things, including developing an understanding of content, ethics, etc, but these additional attributes are also part of the research effort.

To sum up, I am arguing that the teaching-research nexus rests on the importance of two key issues.  The first is scholarship, which must draw on research, but is practiced by both research active and research non-active university teachers.  The second is a commitment to encouraging active investigation and learning by the student, a generic skill that is essential to researchers


What can we do to facilitate and encourage the teaching/research nexus?

The institutional culture of a university needs to embrace, and give emphasis to, the importance of a professional, reflective, self-critical approach to teaching.  Unless there is this awareness of the need to change the institutional culture, nothing can be achieved.

Specific activities to be initiated might include workshops or seminars that incorporate an explanation of the pedagogical principles of the teaching-research nexus, and a better understanding of the benefits for research.

The introduction of a reward system that provides explicit recognition, perhaps through a suite of teaching prizes, for achievements in the teaching-research area. 

The inclusion of case studies of good practice in a teaching good practice web site or database.

And finally by identifying and addressing barriers to the teaching-research nexus.  This could mean reducing high levels of casual or part-time teaching, addressing alignment issues, so that where possible teaching is done by staff with research strengths in those areas, and ensuring that there is time available for staff to keep up with research and incorporate it into teaching