UG must emphasise teaching, not research
I had hoped one of my more capable colleagues at the University of Guyana (UG) would have by now responded to the Kaieteur News editorial of June 29, 2009, titled, “Where is the research?” Alas, I am forced to wade in.
The editor should be commended for tabling the issue for much-needed public debate. That said, the editorial presents a rather narrow and medieval view of higher education and makes a few unfounded statements about UG. I speak here on my own behalf and not as an employee of the university.
In its medieval frame of mind, the editorial asserts that (i) research is the raison d’etre for higher education, (ii) academics can contribute to national development only by creating new knowledge, and (iii) “publish or perish” is the standard for teaching staff in any reputable institution of higher learning.
We can first examine these general issues before turning attention to the specific charges leveled against UG. In the world today, there exists no single gold standard dictating what the goals of a university ought to be.
As matters presently stand, universities can be research-oriented or teaching-focused. They can adopt either a students-as-customers approach or an employers-as-customers approach.
They can provide academic (thesis-based) degrees or professional (non-thesis) qualification. Universities may lean towards an academic culture or towards an entrepreneurial culture. And so forth.
Yes, it remains true that universities still establish their reputation through research. But this fact must not blind us to the diversity of goals and approaches universities embrace today. The process has been driven by the realisation on the part of universities that the relevance of their mission is no longer measured by how faithfully they stick to archaic monastic academic traditions, but by how effectively they respond to national goals and to public demands.
Of particular interest has been the shift, in recent decades, towards re-establishing universities as centres of teaching excellence.
As a result, universities now offer teaching-based contracts (as distinct from research-based contracts) to staff. Merit systems have been re-fashioned to recognise teaching.
Enormous attention is now paid to pedagogy in higher education. In all this, it is wrong to assume that teaching is no more than “teachers regurgitating text”.
The major objective is to educate students to be problem-solvers, creative and critical thinkers, and agents of positive change.
Any survey of UG’s stakeholders (students, employers, government, graduates, etc) would likely find a consensus that its first and foremost function should be to teach and to produce graduates with these abilities and attitudes. Highly reasonable arguments could be advanced to justify this preference.
There is, however, bad news. Only with the best of resources could a university effectively play in both the research and teaching arenas at the same time. In many cases, a university cannot have bake and cake.
An opportunity cost comes into play. For every man-hour or dollar spent on research is exactly that quantum lost to teaching, and vice versa.
So if a class is denied the best lecturer for a course because she is told to drop that course to fulfill her research obligations, or if an accomplished academic is required to take a year’s sabbatical leave, the system suffers. Students pay the price. The university therefore has to decide what its priorities are.
In deciding, the following questions become important: to what extent is there a demand for research work in Guyana? Is there a serious willingness to fund it?
It is helpful here to recognise that the heavy emphasis still placed on university research in developed countries is no longer an end in itself. Rather, research is another avenue through which companies and governments try to achieve comparative advantages.
Billions of dollars therefore flow into universities from public and private sources to ensure the supply of research outputs. Research has become consumerised. Do such conditions exist in Guyana?
The editorial peddles the other misguided notion that publication should be the only measure of the worth of an academic. At UG itself, staff make other valuable contributions, besides teaching, to “national development” as directors on state boards, members of regional bodies, consultants, and advisors.
Is the editorial suggesting, then, that an experienced engineer on the teaching staff should be allowed to “perish” because he is not engaged in research? There is a false virtue in this position, which could only produce more harm than good.
On UG specifically, the editorial is wrong in claiming that: (i) fee-paying has satisfied UG’s funding needs (not so; the record will show that UG still works under severe budgetary constraints and shortfalls; (ii) salaries of UG staff are attractive by local standards (an absurdity; so why do lecturers continue to leave and why don’t qualified Guyanese rush to fill the many vacancies at UG?), and (iii) research output is low (could fit on a “single type-written page”, as the editorial puts it). But what is “low” measured against? Compared to a MIT or even to a UWI, UG’s output is undoubtedly small. This, however, may be the wrong yardstick. More meaningful would be to measure UG’s output against the demand or desire of government and the private sector for research work. Is there an articulated demand and is UG under-supplying it? Some may contend that the university must first have good research products before customers become interested. The many fine research reports lying idly on the shelves of UG’s library, however, undermine this contention.
To push research as the main order of business for UG is to ignore the Guyana context and to misconceive the role of the modern university.