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By Professor Lewis Elton, University College London

"Names matter and it is significant that over the past twenty years, Educational development units (EDUs) have been variously described as academic staff development units, staff development units, staff training units, higher education research and development units, etc. etc., as well of course as educational development units. This plethora of titles indicates not only an uncertainty of purpose, but also the need to present an acceptable front to the academic community.

EDUs have either a research or a service function or both. The university which has established such a unit is primarily interested in the service function, i.e. it hopes that the unit will help to improve teaching in the university, and for that purpose it is awarded 'top sliced' funding. However, there are at least three reasons why such a unit must also have a research function:

  • As an academic unit, it ought to do research, like all other academic parts of the university
  • It is research which gives the unit credibility and attracts good staff
  • To provide a worthwhile service, the unit must research into the ongoing teaching and learning practices of its institution

Of course, there are academics who argue that an EDU is paid to provide a service and that providing a service is not an academic function, although an exception has always been made for the library and more recently for computing. But an EDU is concerned with one of the two central functions of a university, i.e. teaching, and to confine it to a purely service function puts in on a par with e.g. the university catering services. Not surprisingly, all past experience shows that without research, an EDU lacks credibility, its service function is undervalued and it frequently fails to survive. That its research function should be questioned at all is of course highly significant: those who hold this view clearly do not believe university teaching to be a researchable activity and consider the main need to be for the initial basic training of new lecturers.. Unfortunately, they often include some of the most prestigious professors.

But let us assume that the research function is accepted. The question then is what form the research should take. There are two possibilities: either the research is not directly relevant to the institution, in which case it is difficult to relate it to the service function and strong criticisms arise from the rest of the university, or it is, in which case it uniquely involves research into the work of the university itself. Horror! The time honoured stance of the traditional university to research into everything except itself is being challenged. Not surprisingly, it has been suggested that a bullet proof vest is an essential part of an educational developer's equipment.

But the situation is changing. A number of universities, both old and new, now have research based EDUs and they are flourishing. So EDUs can work well, provided that they have a research as well as a service function, but watch for the next financial cuts. What is the betting that some EDUs may go to the wall?"


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