From research-led to research-based teaching

By Michael Arthur

Getting all UCL undergraduates involved in research throughout their degrees will give students skills that employers value, boost research and attract talent, says Michael Arthur.

The money and reputation at stake in the Research Excellence Framework have driven leaders, managers and academics at universities to devote great effort to the research side of their mission. On the other hand, forces such as the National Student Survey and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—not to mention the expectations of undergraduates paying £9,000 a year—are driving universities to deliver a high-quality education and an improved student experience.

These pressures have driven teaching and research at universities apart in recent years. The temptation is to put each activity in its own box. But most researchers who choose to work at universities do so out of a deep-seated commitment to education. And students choose a university in part because they want to be where knowledge is created, not just imparted.

At University College London, our top strategic priority for the next 20 years is to close the divide between teaching and research. We want to integrate research into every stage of an undergraduate degree, moving from research-led to research-based teaching.

One motivation is to help equip graduates with skills such as critical thinking and problem solving that will aid them in the workplace. Another is to help students feel inspired and valued. A third is to help UCL in the increasingly fierce and global competition for the best students and researchers, by leveraging the university’s huge research power in close support of its teaching.

Research also stands to benefit. Lee Huntsman, a past president of the University of Washington in the United States, once told me that Washington’s decision to assign all undergraduates to a research group was a turning point, with students’ enthusiasm and drive rubbing off on junior faculty in particular. And I know from having undergraduates in my own lab that, although they require additional supervision, they can bring novel ideas, make crucial observations and ask the simple but telling questions that others might not think of or want to raise.

The idea that undergraduates should be involved in research is hardly new, of course. Arts and humanities students are expected to explore their libraries, think critically and present their own ideas from day one. I published my first paper as a medical undergraduate at the University of Southampton in the 1970s. At UCL, archaeology undergraduates go out on a dig in their first week. This January, a group of UCL second-year students spotted something in a routine supervised inspection of the night sky that turned out to be an undiscovered supernova.

Most Russell Group universities are moving in a similar direction to UCL. Results are already beginning to show at my previous employer, the University of Leeds, where asking first-year physicists to discuss their lecturers’ papers with the authors has improved student retention dramatically.

Where I believe UCL stands out is in the sheer scale of our research endeavour and in the ambition to integrate research and teaching across the entire institution. This will mean changing criteria for promotion, so that excellence in education is as significant to advancement as excellence in research and innovation.

What a research-based undergraduate degree looks like will vary between degree programmes—we will spend the next couple of years working out how to update the curriculum and teaching of each. But one general consequence ought to be more connections across the university: between students in research teams, between years in degree courses, across departments and even with employers and alumni.

Naturally, the culture of any institution does not change overnight. But at this early stage, there is much enthusiasm at all levels. People in universities instinctively feel that research and education belong together and, in my experience, it creates a positive and cohesive institutional force when academic staff are encouraged to follow this path.

Ultimately, we hope that every UCL student will leave with an understanding and experience of the research process. This will contribute to their confidence in tackling and solving problems, their desire and ability to have an impact on the world, and their employability. And we expect a further positive impact on our research performance.

But above all we hope that these improvements will be reflected in our reputation and our ability to attract the brightest students and staff. This is a re-emphasis of what’s important at a research-intensive university such as ours. To compete internationally, we need to be really excellent in everything we do.

Michael Arthur is president and provost of University College London.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight

This article was published in Research Professional, the UK’s leading independent source of news, analysis, funding opportunities and jobs for the academic research community.