This week PVC Education Kathy Armour asks, "What is ‘Research-Intensive Learning and Teaching’ at the University of Birmingham?"

What is ‘Research-Intensive Learning and Teaching’ at the University of Birmingham?

By any international measure, UK Higher Education is extraordinarily successful, yet despite that success on the global stage, we have come under sustained critical scrutiny at home – by politicians, the public and in the media.

In particular, research-intensive universities such as ours have been challenged to prove that ‘research-intensive’ is as much about students as it is about research; and that teaching is valued sufficiently by academics and the institution. More specifically, we have been challenged to be clearer about what we do in our teaching that is unique to research-intensives. After all, we have long claimed that ‘research-led teaching’ is something special, but we have been less clear about what it actually entails. Questions include:

  • How do we guarantee that all students at all levels benefit from learning in a research-intensive environment?
  • What do we offer that is not available in an institution where staff conduct less research but use published research in their teaching?

Many of us feel we know the answers to these questions – they seem obvious – and this was a hot topic in our Big Conversation last year. Yet - when challenged, research-intensives have struggled to articulate a position that has convinced the critics.

As a result, both the Russell Group and Universitas 21 undertook new work last year to crystallise the benefits of studying in research-intensive universities. Here at the University of Birmingham, we led the U21 work and we focussed on sharp questions about our ‘value proposition’ for students. In national and international contexts where funding and ‘value for money’ are increasingly contested, we felt it was important to ask ourselves the question:

  • What is the value proposition for students studying at contemporary research-intensive universities?

The outcome of this work is a U21 Position Statement which is available here. The Position Statement crystallises the nature of the education we should be offering at a research-intensive university. Take a look and consider whether you feel there is there anything we need to do differently to deliver that research-intensive vision.

More importantly, here at the University of Birmingham we now need to ask ourselves the follow-up question:

  • What is the distinctive value proposition for students studying at the University of Birmingham?

So, today I am reopening the Big Conversation so that we can engage in dialogue across our institution about the distinctive value proposition for students studying at our research-intensive university – the University of Birmingham.

My starting proposition for the Conversation is that I want to drop the term ‘research-led teaching’. It hasn’t chimed with the public and we are all using it in different ways. I have just reviewed the 2017-18 School Education Plans for every School in the University and statements on the links between teaching and research range from the unclear to the distinctly unhelpful. We need to do better.

Instead of talking about ‘research-led teaching’ I am suggesting that we need to be bolder and focus on conceptualising the more dynamic concept of ‘research-intensive learningfor students. My thesis is that research-intensive learning for students is the necessary outcome of our research-intensive teaching. So, in the Big Conversation we need to ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • What is research-intensive learning for students at the University of Birmingham?
  • How can we ensure that, through our research-intensive teaching, every student at every level is engaged in research-intensive learning?
  • Do we need to do anything differently to achieve our ambition for research-intensive learning?

To open the Conversation, here are some thoughts from our PVC Research and some of our Heads of College on what research-intensive learning and teaching means to them:

“From my perspective, research-intensive learning should include a strong element of learning through the methodology and practices of research – learning the hard way! That not only means giving our students opportunities to do original research - but it could also involve teaching them the real story of how research results are obtained, not just what the results were.  There are many skills and attributes relevant to that real story which include the original creativity and vision, planning, problem-solving, obtaining and recording new data and information, logical deduction and analysis, teamwork and team management, patience and determination, technical skills knowledge and methodology, dealing with the reality of imperfect data, hypothesis testing and verification, coping with frustrated ambitions and off-putting reviews, good communication, recognising what is good and what is spurious….When Sir Paul Nurse gave a talk to graduate students here recently he described the real story of how his Nobel prize winning results were obtained – far more interesting and educational than the results themselves which have been superseded 30 years later!”

Professor Tim Softley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research & Knowledge Transfer)

Research-intensive learning is education that is conducted within a research-rich environment where students acquire, indirectly through the pervasive research culture as well as directly through the example of leading researchers and the challenge of assignments, the intellectual curiosity and rigorous approach that can be widely applied.  In the same way as researchers conduct research of differing intensity and significance (sometimes the goal will be a text-book rather than a 4* REF output), so too students will learn in the way most appropriate to the level and subject of study within a frame that tends to lead to a progressively deeper engagement in the practices of research.  We will need to do some/many things differently, but precisely what will depend on the nature/level of the module: my guess would be that significant change will be needed in assessments in order to ensure that a full range of research methods and skills are being covered, and that the methods of delivery will also need some reflection.”

Professor Michael Whitby, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Arts & Law                 

“Studying at a university is about joining an academic community. At a research-intensive university that community is at the cutting edge of the disciplines. From project work and tutorials to socialising between labs and lectures, students and academic staff together are discussing and developing the ideas that are making the weather in their fields” 

Professor A. J. Schofield, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences

We had a number of contributions to the Big Conversation on this topic last year – including from students.

What are your thoughts?

  • I invite all those staff who are engaged in research and teaching to post ideas on the Big Conversation site, discuss the topic with students and colleagues (and post the outcomes) and share any articles or resources that could be of interest.
  • I also invite students to contribute views on how they experience research-intensive teaching, how that leads to research-intensive learning, and what this might mean for their futures.
  • External contributors - particularly colleagues from our partner institutions – can also share their thoughts on research-intensive education.  

Our Big Conversation on ‘Research-Intensive Learning and Teaching’ is open from today until Christmas. We will then summarise the contributions and share key ideas that emerge. You can access all contributions to the Conversation from the Big Conversation link on the HEFi website. See below for brief information on the process of posting/commenting.   

Kathy Armour, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Education

Further reading

If you would like to add a post, please email it to and it will be added to the site. Comments are welcome; simply add your comment in the box below the post and it will appear on the site once it has been through the bot filter.