Critical examination of the teaching-research nexus through analysis of academic contracts used in UK universities.

Project: Research council

Project Details


The standard contract for academic work in UK higher education (HE) apportions equal time to teaching and research - 40% each - with the remainder going to administrative tasks. However, the equal weighting, where teaching and research complement each other in a symbiotic nexus, is being jeopardised by wider systemic forces and in ways that affect the nature of academic work. Diverting resources to meet crude performative markers of 'excellence' used as proxies for institutional and individual success in research and teaching (the REF and the TEF respectively) are undermining any notional symbiosis. There is wider significance when competitive practices undermine the civic character of the university and weaken collegiality. An initial project, conducted in 2018 and funded by The British Academy, found that academics were struggling to preserve a teaching-research nexus in their daily work (McKinley et al. 2020). The demands were experienced unequally by minoritised groups and across different types of universities (McIntosh et al. 2019), and indicated changes in the awarding of standard, research-only or teaching-only academic contracts.
To understand more about these changes we analysed data, collected by UUK, of academic contracts awarded in UK universities between 2012/13 and 2019/20. We examined trends through lenses of different university types (research-focused, teaching-focused and balanced in both), gender, ethnicity and career-stage. We then interviewed senior managers with an insight into contract policies to understand how any changes to contracting affect their working conditions.
Participants were recruited via three channels: a) academics from the initial study’s questionnaire who agreed to future contact; b) senior leaders who were interviewed in the first study; c) further avenues using the team's professional networks. As in the first study, participants were selected from post-1992 universities as well as others. To mirror the longitudinal quantitative data, only academics who have been employed in their university since 2015/16 were invited in order that they could draw on their reflections of change over time.
A sequential mixed-method design was adopted. The secondary data, supplied by the British Academy, was analysed prior to the collection of qualitative data via interviews and focus groups. Analysis of trends in quantitative data illustrated areas to follow up on in interviews with senior managers, who were asked to reflect on changes in policy and/or practice for awarding contracts with a particular focus on the effects of the pandemic over the last twelve months. The conclusions from analysis of both sets of data showed a range of ways in which competing demands are differently experienced by different groups of academics in HE, changes in contracting trends and pointed towards the consequences of this for the teaching-research nexus in different types of university.
McIntosh, S., McKinley, J., Milligan, L. O., & Mikolajewska, A. (2019). Issues of (in) visibility and compromise in academic work in UK universities. Studies in Higher Education.
McKinley, J., McIntosh, S., Milligan, L., Mikolajewska, A. (2020) Eyes on the enterprise: problematising the concept of a teaching-research nexus in UK higher education. Higher Education. (online publication date: 3 August 2020)

Layman's description

An earlier study we completed identified different experiences of academic practice in different kinds of university. We did this by looking at the concept of the teaching-research nexus: a close connection between an academic's research and the teaching they do. The first study indicated discrepancies between those on teaching and research contracts and those on teaching-only contracts. To investigate these further, we framed employment contracts for academics as indicators of trends in academic work. We analysed two data sets, quantitative and qualitative, the former a secondary data set collected annually by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the second was new data gathered through interviews with senior academics at twelve universities in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Key findings

We concluded that, over the last five years, though the numbers of academics have increased, the rise has not been in standard academic contracts requiring teaching and research. Furthermore, minoritized groups, women and those identifying as non-white, as well as early-career academics, are more likely to be given teaching-only and fixed-term contracts than white men. This trend has implications for the promotion and progression of academics and, if it continues, will increase the representation of the majority group in senior positions. Additionally, the study showed that women were perceived as adversely affected by working through COVID-19 in addition to existing contractual discrimination. Meanwhile, some universities were actively working to reduce precarious working conditions.
Short title£11,719
Effective start/end date25/03/219/09/21

Collaborative partners


  • The British Academy


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