The research conducted by universities can sometimes seem detached from students’ educational experiences. However, university research can have a profound impact on their lives, even if they don’t realise it.
Universities are often keen to talk about their research, especially if they are highly ranked in the area, or are carrying out high-profile work. In fact, current and past research projects are often highly prominent on a university website’s homepage.
But for a long time, there been considerable misunderstanding about the role research plays at educational institutions. Some students, parents and commentators can’t see the contribution research makes to students’ experiences.
For these people, there is a sense that professors might become distracted and resources may be diverted from the job of teaching students. But, far from doing this, research actually has a direct impact on the quality of teaching students can expect.
For a start, teaching staff involved with university research will have valuable insight into their subject area, gained from active participation in the field. In fact, being at the cutting edge of research in a particular subject can filter through to students. Though projects can sometimes take years, or even decades, to complete, the research is applicable in the classroom right away.
This is true for undergraduates as well as postgraduates. While those taking a master’s may often be more directly involved in important university research projects themselves, bachelor’s students will also benefit from having such up-to-date knowledge, and close proximity to their subject matter.
It’s hugely valuable to know that teaching staff won’t fall behind the times when it comes to knowing their subject and sector. Being involved in research helps ensure that lecturers are actually engaged in what they are teaching.
In addition, it's only logical that cutting-edge research can help keep university staff stimulated and challenged, so that they themselves continue to learn. As researcher and professor Dr John Story wrote in a 2012 Huffington Post article, this can turn professors into better teachers because they can empathise with their students. It also reinforces the value of being a 'lifelong learner' – the idea that, no matter what age you reach or how many qualifications you hold, you can always learn more.
There are also more tangible benefits. University research usually requires investment in state-of-the-art facilities such as better laboratories, bigger libraries and specialist equipment.
In many cases, universities even get grants and funding from governments and businesses to ensure they can properly invest in what’s needed for their research. These facilities are largely made available to students, enriching their studies and giving them direct access to better equipment.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, university research also has a hugely valuable long-term and far-reaching impact on students. No matter which subject a student is studying, the textbooks and resources they rely on to learn were almost certainly the product of research carried out by academics.
And, taking an even wider view, when students graduate they will go on to use products, take medicine and benefit from knowledge that has all been made possible by research.
In the UK, one way to see how much emphasis a university places on research is by checking the Research Excellence Framework. This shows the quality, quantity and influence of a university’s research, which could be taken into account when picking a study destination. After all, research not only expands the study options open to prospective students by granting universities greater expertise in the field; it can also make the degree itself more valuable.