At one of our Big Conversation events, we picked out some areas which at Birmingham we think are important to the student experience and asked our students whether that rings true for them. One topic that really got people talking was research-led teaching. As a Birmingham alumna who took a keen interest in the research of my own department, I thought I knew what was coming – but I didn’t.
We asked undergraduate students how they felt about studying at a research-intensive university, and a large number said that they didn’t feel it affected them at all. Some of our students didn’t know the research specialism of their lecturers, and had limited knowledge of their working beyond teaching. At the suggestion that departments teaching in areas of expertise gives students access to cutting-edge research in class, it came across from the students that, to them, cutting-edge teaching is more important that cutting-edge research. Further to this, research is still seen by some students as an obstacle preventing them from getting hold of their lecturers. From our students’ point of view, it was clear that they were concerned with having the best teachers, not the best researchers.
I still believe, as was my own experience, that the experience of being in an academic research environment could be one of the defining characteristics of a Birmingham degree. However, perhaps it’s thinking about ‘research-led teaching’ which is stopping many of our students really feeling the benefits. It suggests exposure to research, rather than contribution. We should be aiming for research-embedded teaching, so that more taught students become members of the research community, rather than just beneficiaries.