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Research-based education is happening in Europe, but there are clear challenges with how it is defined and understood. Bjørn Stensaker from the University of Oslo breaks down the topic and makes some proposals on how to truly unite research and education.

European universities have a proud heritage, not least inspired by the Humboldtian ideas of unity between research and education. For many universities in Europe, it is still a fact that research has a higher status than education and teaching. While things are indeed changing, one could question whether the many strategies and initiatives taken to enhance the quality of learning and teaching are coherently designed and will be effective.

In many countries, the quality of learning and teaching is sought and enhanced by both national policy initiatives, as well as new institutional strategies. Typical examples of broader European policy initiatives taken in recent years are the emphasis on student-centred learning, which came in as a new requirement in the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), new national frameworks for making learning outcomes more explicit and measurable, and new guidelines for the scope and content of the pedagogical training individual academics require when taking up a new academic position.

While the intention behind these and similar initiatives are praiseworthy, they are still indicative of a relatively conservative approach to quality enhancement in higher education. Historically, the idea of research-based education has been central to many European universities established on the Humboldt legacy. Behind this idea is the implicit assumption that the link between research and education is unidirectional, where research should enrich the educational experience. To make this happen, research is often operationalised as something that is “produced” where the characteristics of the “production machinery” become essential. Hence, to be able to say that research-based education is happening, it is necessary to have a library, academic staff with doctoral degrees, and research being published by the same staff. Whether any of these indicators have a direct positive effect on educational and teaching quality is – empirically speaking - still an open question. Such a lack of evidence seems to matter less for the many national and institutional quality assurance systems established that use these indicators as “proof” of research-based education.

Thus, there are three challenges with how we tend to define and understand research-based education. The first is that we operationalise the concept as a number of “input” factors that we hope will lead to student learning. By emphasising these indicators – which we tend to use because they are easy to measure – we downplay the importance of the learning process, the interactions between teachers and students, and how they communicate, discuss and reflect in their joint educational settings. The second challenge is that by emphasising the academic staff and their qualifications so strongly, we also individualise the responsibility for quality. Poor quality becomes an issue that is linked to the individual lacking the skills to teach. Courses and training provided to academic staff underline the idea that poor quality is an individual responsibility. The third challenge is that the current understanding of research-based education is ignoring the role of students in the learning process. The recent idea of student-centred learning illustrate the paradox: Teachers are now requested to “design” courses in ways that makes them “student-centred”, quite often without even asking students about critical design dilemmas.

Should we then scrap the whole concept of research-based education? Not at all, but a dramatic re-thinking is required. In the knowledge society students will need skills and competencies that are similar to those of researchers: critical thinking, to be able to work independently and collectively with others, creativity, and commitment will never go out of fashion. Therefore, how can we make students into researchers?

There are several ways forward, including the creation of spaces for experimental learning processes and structures. These allow teachers and students collectively to find new ways to work together, exploring new technology and ways to provide feedback and assessment.

Another way is to invite students to make critical decisions about their own learning processes. Researchers make decisions regarding their research all the time – decisions that have consequences the researchers have to face later on. Students also need to learn and experience the dilemmas represented by choices and the consequences of decisions taken.

Finally, students can be phenomenal teachers, and can inspire both their peers and their teachers if they are given the space and responsibility to take on this role. These are promising solutions that could truly bring unity to research and education in the years to come.


Bjørn Stensaker
University of Oslo

Bjørn Stensaker is Vice-Rector for Education at the University of Oslo, where he is also Professor of Higher Education. He has a special interest in studies of higher education reform, university governance and organisational change, and he has published extensively on these issues in a range of international journals.

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