Why research reputation trumps teaching reputation in universities

Submitted to the Journal for Brief Ideas

Why research reputation trumps teaching reputation in universities

In humans we see lekking behaviour in the general rule that people like being around successful people. This is why social A-lists exist. More generally as animal behaviour, a lek is a gathering of individuals for the purposes of competitive display – competitive signalling. For universities, A-list researchers attract other high quality researchers and also crucially high quality teachers. Why is this important for attracting high quality teachers? Academics themselves are generally seen to be sensitive to reputational influences of their peer group. High quality teachers will be hesitant to join to a university who’s reputation is ambiguous (uncertainty as to rank). The solution is to have an unambiguous reputational signal. However, the signal needs to overcome the problems of asymmetric information associated with the observation (‘measurement’) of quality. It is for this reason that research reputation trumps teaching reputation. Research reputation is a less ambiguous signal as a result of the strength of external validation – active peer review in both academic and public domains (media). Teaching reputation is harder to validate outside the university in which it occurs, leading to the problem of asymmetric information.

Leaver S 2015 ‘Why research reputation trumps teaching reputation in universities’ Journal for Brief Ideas, Zenodo,10.5281/zenodo.15414

Universities as an economic ‘club good’ – the importance of research and why some institutions fail

Universities are characterised, compared with other tertiary education providers, as having a significant amount of resources dedicated to research activities.  Typically, an elite university will direct 40-50% of its academic resources towards research.  This is despite the fact that university research is cash-flow negative even after all government grants and commercial revenue are taken into account. As a rule, an optimistic expectation would be that for every two dollars spent on research you may get one dollar back as either grants or revenue. Typically, it is closer to 3:1.  The financial viability of universities rests on its ability to generate teaching revenue.  Teaching undergraduates and postgraduate coursework students.  Curiously, a strong link between the university research undertaken and the courses being taught is not necessary to ensure strong student enrolments and financial viability.  The reason for this is the key role research plays in generating strong reputational benefits for the university.

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