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J R Soc Med. 2004 March; 97(3): 153.
PMCID: PMC1079334

Is learning driven by teaching or research?

Professor Leinster (January 2004 JRSM1) states that there has yet been no proof that high-quality teaching in universities is correlated to high-quality research:—a point often expressed by the senior politicians and civil servants responsible for higher education. However, during the last decade it was often remarked that, to cursory examination, there was a remarkable coincidence between those university departments that scored highly in the research assessment exercises (RAEs) and those that scored highly in the teaching quality assessments. All of this information is in the public domain: has nobody yet analysed it?

More to the point is the suggestion, in his excellent article, that to look for a correlation between research and teaching is to obscure the irrefragable relationship between research and learning. Learning, and acquiring the skill of how to learn, can only take place in an environment of discovery provided through research.

However, I must challenge some of Professor Leinster's facts in his analysis of the RAE and its outcomes. The RAE was actually a 7 (not 5) point scale. A curiously English invention, it ran from 1 to 5, but with grades 3a and 3b and 5 and 5* there are actually 7 points. More importantly, it is not true that only the highest (5 and 5*) grades were funded. 4s were funded, but at a lower level than previously. 3s were funded for the first year; 3as in unit of assessment 11 (professions allied to medicine) continue to receive `developmental' funding.

But it is the philosophical basis of his contention that is a double-edged sword. Yes, it may well be deplorable to remove research funding from departments engaged in medical education, because the subsequent demise of research activity will inevitably damage the inquisitive learning that is necessary if we are to maintain the highest quality supply of educated doctors capable of advancing their profession. However, if the research of some departments has been judged not to be of the highest grade (i.e. 5/5*), does this not, by his own argument, suggest that the learning will also be second rate? Or is `good enough' research sufficient to produce `good enough' doctors?

I will be the first to admit that there is no comfortable answer to these issues. I do believe that research which has been judged to be of (at least) `national levels of achievable excellence' is not only worth encouraging, but is also a valuable and positive beneficial stimulus to students' learning, and therefore should be supported. The essential problem is that, in the UK, we are world beaters at producing excellence in both research and teaching for the minimum financial input, and that the indisputable increases in both the quality and quantity of our teaching and research over the past years has outstripped the nation's political desire to provide adequate funding. This not only affects medical education but also has a major negative impact on strategic research undertaken by our universities that might otherwise support innovation and growth in the domestic economy.


1. Leinster S. Medical schools: are we paying for education or for technical training? J R Soc Med 2004;97: 3–5 [PMC free article] [PubMed]

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press