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Postgraduate Education and the Teaching-Research Nexus

By Roy Webb - posted Thursday, 23 March 2000

While the process of globalisation provides nations, corporations and individuals with enormous opportunities, it also imposes severe pressures and for some, deprivation. Governments and businesses are under intensifying pressures to become internationally competitive. In response, they have hastened the abandonment of restrictive work practices.

The globalised labour market generates rising levels of uncertainty and turbulence and growing competition for jobs and can be a hostile environment for the unprepared. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times put it:

"Unfortunately, not everyone is equipped to run fast. There are a lot of turtles out there, desperately trying to avoid becoming roadkill. The turtles are all those people who got sucked into the Fast World when the walls came down, and for one reason or another now feel economically threatened … the jobs they have are being rapidly transformed, downsized, streamlined or made obsolete by globalisation."


The essential attributes for success, and perhaps even survival, in the globalising labour market are a good education plus the ability to keep on learning, or in more competitive language, a good start plus the ability to stay ahead. What were once the hallmark skills of higher achievers are rapidly becoming the norm as all citizens (employees, entrepreneurs and employers) must be prepared to renew and rebuild their skill base to enable declining opportunities in one area to be offset by a response to new opportunities in another.

The effects of globalisation are magnified by the changing composition of many economies as advances in technology create further shifts away from agriculture, mining and manufacturing to knowledge-based industries as the main generators of economic growth. Education has shifted from the status of a key service industry, of a preparatory nature in terms of most people's careers, to a position at centre stage as the quintessential knowledge-based industry, relevant on a basis of lifelong learning rather than only a pre-experience basis.

Consequently, two distinct and legitimate strands have emerged in postgraduate education. One is the traditional role of preparing academics and researchers who will generate and disseminate new knowledge (academia "breeding" its own replacements). The second concerns students who wish to update their knowledge and skills to stay abreast of developments in their chosen fields, or to re-train for a career change. These professionally motivated postgraduate students constitute an important and growing segment of the higher education market. They are highly motivated, they view postgraduate education and lifelong learning as the means of remaining competitive in the labour market and they demand quality educational products relevant to their career needs. The coursework programs they seek represent a significant departure from the traditional research higher degree approach to postgraduate study, even though the coursework programs sometimes include a research component.

Each strand places quite different demands on universities and on their funding mechanisms. In particular, coursework degrees are increasingly the subject of user-pay fee regimes, while Research Higher Degree (RHD) students are usually supported by grants and scholarships.

The traditional teaching/research nexus provided the initial rationale for the RHD model of postgraduate studies. University professors taught from the corpus of established knowledge to their larger classes, but to smaller classes of honours students and to research higher degree students they taught how to discover, how to participate as real-time players in pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.

The massification of higher education has put pressures on this process. Many of the most productive researchers have been taken out of, or have taken themselves out of, the mainstream of undergraduate teaching in order to specialise in the creation of knowledge. This has led to diminished emphasis on the synthesising and transmission of knowledge by some of the best researchers. The main casualty has been the "ordinary" undergraduate, whose exposure to significant participants in the discovery process has diminished in many universities, but perhaps an even more important deprivation follows from the decline in the practice and recognition of synthesis as a key form of scholarship. These days textbooks written by great researchers in any given field are not as common as they used to be. Mass marketing of textbooks by less prominent writers has left its mark in the form of more superficial writing and teaching.


In spite of these weaknesses the "massified" teaching/research university model of the decades from the 1960s through the 1990s has remained dominant. There is now, however, a question mark over its future in the age of the information/Internet revolution.

The traditional model, still largely operational in most countries, was funded by public subvention and/or private fees in such a manner as effectively to subsidise research from funds provided for teaching. Over time, the use of teaching grants and fees for research funding has been "legitimised" by such devices as the Australian practice of statistical imputation as research expenditure of a fraction (now about one-third) of the salary costs of academic staff. On the assumption that academic staff do in fact both teach and research (an assumption that is the subject of increasing debate) the teaching/research university makes two vital contributions - it transmits knowledge and also makes a contribution to the discovery of new knowledge. This new knowledge feeds back into the teaching process. These roles are complementary, and, it is ironic that in the Information Age they are increasingly isolated from each other rather than the nexus becoming tighter.

Following the introduction of the Internet, flexible learning and other new educational technologies, educational products can now be accessed online. Traditional "face to face" teaching may be about to give way to the new technologies in ways that dispense with the need for some of the traditional elements of university infrastructure and work practice.

Now if the growth of e-education mirrors the spectacular growth we are seeing in e-commerce generally, we will see new institutions and new players entering the scene. Telecommunications, computing, software and media corporations are actively scanning opportunities for e-education.

Two possible scenarios emerge. One involves universities staying in their traditional mode and leaving flexible delivery to other providers. Such a scenario threatens the underlying economics of the teaching/research nexus, for competitive new providers will tend to drive the costs and prices of flexible course delivery down to levels which do not cover the costs of research and discovery, which activities are vital for the replenishment and updating of the knowledge stock. If, in this relatively passive mode, universities lose market share, of undergraduate and post-graduate coursework students, to other providers, they will need to find new sources of funding for research and research students, or else see their research performance deteriorate.

A brighter scenario, and one which Griffith is eagerly embracing, involves universities adapting rapidly to the new technologies and remaining the principal suppliers of flexible higher educational product and of the flexible delivery process. They may do this in partnership, or in strategic alliance, with corporations from the telecommunications, IT, and media areas. If universities manage to remain strong participants in globalised educational delivery, on a basis of funding (fees plus grants) which includes an adequate allowance for knowledge refurbishment and extension, then a stable future for the teaching/research university is assured, and the RHD stream within the postgraduate spectrum will remain funded. This outcome cannot be taken for granted.

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This article was first published in the Griffith University newspaper, The GU Gazette. It is an abridged version of the keynote address Professor Webb delivered to the international conference "Postgraduate Education Towards the Year 2010" held at Kasetsart University, Thailand in January, 2000.

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About the Author

Prof Roy Webb was Vice Chancellor of Griffith University from 1985 to 2002. He is now Chair of the Library Board of Queensland.

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