Exploring brokerage activities between Life Science research and teaching communities in UK Higher Education Institutions

  Teaching-focused academics in UK Life Science departments may experience anxiety about their continued ability to teach undergraduates at Honours level, and postgraduates at Masters and doctoral level, because they are aware that they become increasingly distanced from research advances in their discipline. Imagining research-focused and teaching-focused academics as two distinct communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), there is evidence to suggest that teaching-focused academics experience anxiety with regards to their teaching, when they are no longer actively involved in disciplinary research. The result of no longer being “research-active” means that they are no longer able to keep up with disciplinary literature and they no longer practisce experimental research at the bench. This has an impact on the reality of a university being “research-led”, as the expectation is that staff will be engaged in research which feeds into their teaching.
However, teaching-focused academics do have experience of pedagogic research and an understanding of the scholarship of teaching and learning which is more developed than their research-focused colleagues. When teaching-focused academics wish to develop new teaching materials, especially laboratory teaching practicals, that they invite research-focused academics to share their disciplinary expertise. However, there is little evidence to suggest that research-focused academics reciprocate by asking teaching-focused academics to share their teaching and learning expertise, so that research-focused academics can move away from didactic lecturing.
The theoretical background of this study stems from the work of Etienne Wenger’s (1998) Communities of Practice. Teaching-focused and Research-focused Academics form two distinct communities of practice; one focused on research, the other focused on teaching and scholarship. This dichotomy is emphasised in the UK by the influence of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a national exercise which measures the quality of research being done in UK universities. The 2014 (Higher Education Funding Council for England) REF assessed the work of 154 UK universities. Funding is concomitant with the percentage of 3* and 4* (world class) research papers, plus impact statements which evidence the significance of the research. This puts pressure on research-focused academics to produce world class research, and has led to the existence of the teaching-focused academic, whose role is to cover the majority of teaching and administrative tasks to allow research-focused academics to concentrate on disciplinary research. The two communities do not exist in isolation, despite becoming separated. Indeed the duality appears as a result of conflict between the goal of science and the goal of the organisation (Glaser, 1963). The influence of REF results in certain behaviours being cultivated which further separates the communities. There is some exchange between the communities in the form of brokerage (Wenger, 1998, p. 105). The brokerage that is likely to occur is when research-focused academics give seminars to groups of students, or when they are consulted on their disciplinary expertise on the development of new teaching, specifically laboratory practical classes (Tierney, 2016). In this case, their disciplinary knowledge exists as a boundary object (Wenger, 1998, p. 105). While research-focused academics are asked for their disciplinary knowledge and expertise by teaching-focused academics, there is little evidence to demonstrate that research-focused academics consult with teaching-focused academics on pedagogic matters. However, a robust, sustainable culture of brokerage could exist, where research-focused and teaching-focused academics could collaborate, each trading their expertise. In this case, both disciplinary knowledge and pedagogic knowledge could both exist as boundary objects. Supporting this kind of brokering relationship would support teaching-focused academics’ quest for up to date disciplinary knowledge, whilst at the same time improving research-focused academics’ pedagogic knowledge.

  • Start Date:

    1 March 2017

  • End Date:

    28 February 2018

  • Activity Type:


  • Funder:

    Society for Research into Higher Education

  • Value:


Project Team