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Sumita Kale: Research versus teaching

The US system of 'publish or perish' is meeting with resistance from some quarters

Sumita Kale 

Do researchers teach higher order skills and increase student human capital better than non-researchers?

Just like burgers and big cars, the American system of ‘publish or perish’ is slowly engulfing the world and, in the process, meeting with resistance from some quarters. Even as excellence in higher education institutions is increasingly being linked to research output — and there are many in the race to raise their rankings — there are others, like Europe, rebelling against the system. European universities typically figure low on global ranking systems, one of the reasons being the high weightage given to research performance. Actually, getting published isn’t easy for non-US academics — Bruno Frey has a great paper on the Publication Impossibility Theorem System, ‘Economists in the PITS’1, a tongue-in-cheek but realistic account of the publishing game. Now the European Commission is sponsoring a new ranking system that will also account for teaching quality, employability of students, community outreach, etc.

For those who wonder why institutes of higher education reward research while selling education, Dahlia Remler and Elda Pema’s paper2 throws some light on this puzzle. Funded research is not the issue; the point under scrutiny is the increasing emphasis on unfunded research. The paradox is that, though the higher education market is quite competitive, students, who should be most interested in teaching quality, are also drawn towards universities with better research reputation.

The paper reviews many theories in higher education, looking at the relationship between research and teaching. One theory is that researchers more effectively teach higher order skills and, therefore, increase student human capital more than non-researchers. In contrast, according to the signalling theory, education is not intrinsically productive but only a signal that separates high and low-ability workers. Under this theory then, researchers would make worse teachers and better screeners. That is, as researchers find it easier to teach better students who can move ahead with them rather than spoon feed students with lower abilities, a faculty with higher research reputation would automatically drive out low-ability students.

There are various issues involved here. Do universities prefer to reward research since it is easier to measure than teaching quality? Student evaluations, after all, are known to be beset with problems. Or is research valued because it brings prestige with it? Or, is unfunded research a public good? In which case, wouldn’t direct subsidies be a better way of financing such research than allowing for subsidies from teaching?

Remler and Pema’s paper raises more questions than it answers: “Which aspects of education are valued in the labour market, particularly those most difficult to measure, such as analytical thinking? Can valid measures of those abilities be developed? How costly would they be to implement? How valid are current measures of higher education teaching quality and can further valid and cost-effective measures be developed? How does faculty research affect student learning? Does this vary by discipline and, if so, how? To what extent does unfunded research provide valuable public goods? If such research were funded directly would the transactions cost be prohibitively large?” Remler and Pema do recognise the irony in concluding that only further research will resolve these issues!

Higher education costs are high and rising, yet private willingness to pay and public support for public financing are both substantial. In the US, tax breaks and laws allowing for patents on discoveries made with public funds have pushed universities onto the research agenda. With such high stakes, the impact of emphasising research over teaching should not be ignored.

The ultimate issue remains: When is public funding justified for higher education? Columbia Professor Delbanco put it well in an article in The New York Times: “As our children go through the arduous process of choosing a college and trying to persuade that college to choose them, it will be a sign of improved social health if we can get to the point of asking not about the school’s ranking but whether it’s a place that helps students confront hard questions in an informed way. If and when the answer is yes, that’s a college worthy of support, and all the alumni gifts and tax breaks can never be enough.” Now that’s something we could bear in mind here in India.

Sumita Kale is Chief Economist at Indicus Analytics

1The paper should be read in the original and is not being summarised here. Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, Working Paper No. 406, March 2009, 
2 NBER Working Paper No. 14874, May 2009,  

First Published: Fri, June 12 2009. 00:24 IST