The University of Central Lancashire recently hosted an event in Westminster to celebrate undergraduate research and I had the privilege of meeting a number of undergraduates from a range of universities. The calibre of those undergraduates taking part in the exhibition was outstanding.
I have always strongly advocated the importance of a research informed teaching environment within universities. UCLan held its first undergraduate conference in this area in 2008 - later hosting the first national event in 2011.
Many hold the view that a research informed curriculum is not essential, and would seek to decouple the research and teaching agendas. However, it is clear that if students engage in research informed teaching then they develop many of the skills required by employers - such as enhanced analytical skills, communication skills as well as the ability to develop and test hypothesis. It is not surprising therefore that research informed curricula can lead to better job prospects. In addition though, students engaged in these activities report very high satisfaction ratings and in many cases it can have a profound impact on their development.
The event at Westminster was therefore important. The work the students presented, combined with their enthusiasm and testimony helped emphasise the importance of the interplay between research and teaching at a time when many are arguing for the dissociation of the two.
Within the Bologna Process, the definition of a university requires the engagement in both knowledge creation through research and its dissemination through teaching and practice. Higher Education in the UK is recognised as one of our strongest exports, contributing around £30 billion to GDP. At a time when other countries are trying to emulate us by investing in teaching and research to generate the dynamic academic environments that characterise UK universities, we must not undermine our position by moving away from that definition.
This is not an argument against research concentration. However, it is a plea for government and other stakeholders to recognise the importance of ensuring that all universities engage in some research activity if we are to maintain the reputation of the UK university title - as well as the quality of the student experience.
A second message from the event was that, through research informed teaching, students can take their place as contributors to the university academic environment. Yes, universities need to be more business-like and to ensure effective use of funds. But they are special businesses - built around the staff and students they contain. In this regard the students enter into a partnership with staff. They are not simply customers buying a course but active participants in the success of the university. It is perhaps this level of engagement, coupled to the academic challenge generated by research informed teaching that helps to ensure such high satisfaction levels and the sense of achievement the students obtain.
I have spoken to staff and students at a number of these events now. Every-time it reinforces my respect for the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff involved and leaves me with a clear view of the quality of the undergraduates' work. It also demonstrates the importance of these opportunities to the students as they develop into the confident independent learners that business and society need from its future leaders.