Has the TEF been good for teaching-only staff?

John McCormack has been speaking to teaching-only staff at Russell Group universities, and they have plenty of reasons to be annoyed

August 1, 2017
teaching and learning
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The teaching excellence framework (TEF) has certainly focused attention on what the consequences might be of not getting a gold or silver rating, and as we were promised, institutional results have been presented starkly, side-by-side, for easy comparisons. But what is the likely impact of the TEF on teaching activities and the growing number of staff in HE whose primary pursuit is teaching-only (the TOs, as I will call them)?

Many academics hope the TEF will help raise the status of these activities so that they stand proudly alongside the more lauded pursuit of research, and in turn, this might have the same effect on the teaching career path. However, in the minds of some at least, the TEF could just become a reaffirmation of prejudices against TOs as a lesser breed, with the results being a stick with which to beat them.

We recently spoke with more than 50 teaching staff at 20 different Russell Group universities. There was a fairly even male to female split, with staff aged on average around 46 and typically having been a TO for six years, as part of around 13 years in HE. We found that TOs need something to help them out of limbo. They now constitute 25 per cent of academics in the Russell Group, more than 60 per cent of all part-time academics, and they feel stuck in a role that is unappreciated and under-acknowledged.

All the attention has been spent on "surprising" examples of "poor" standards at big-name institutions, but this isn’t going to help address the real problem of the growing divide between research and teaching.

Being excluded from research time and the opportunity to enjoy the potential stardom of a strong record of publications and funding, is creating structural and social barriers for TOs to achieve their maximum potential. They talked about the way in which universities can look to "offload" administrative and teaching obligations on to them, leaving the so-called "REF-able" with more time to publish.

The TOs pointed to a basic injustice at the heart of the problem: this is a system where research and teaching activities inextricably flow into each other. We were told that it was largely through student fee income, and the ability to provide a good student experience, that institutions could afford to pay excellent researchers. In turn, the high-quality research output ensures that staff-student interactions are valuable – hopefully, inspirational – and content on courses is cutting-edge.

TOs in our study felt they were not perceived to be “proper academics”, because of a set of institutional barriers, which locked them into an identity as second-class citizens. For TOs, promotion and progression is contractually capped and the criteria around these decisions is fuzzy, at best.

Furthermore, job titles might be part of the marginalisation problem. Most institutions demarcate TO staff by inserting "teaching" in the label - for example "teaching fellow". This distances them from the first order academic pursuit of "research". Some institutions have recently adopted terms such as "professors of Practice" and "assistant professor, teaching", but this risks reinforcing TO status as something other than "real" professordom.

The research provides one window onto the TO situation and attitudes. It’s fair to say the wider landscape is more complex and there are many universities who are trying to provide clear promotion routes for TO staff and attempting to provide more fairness and balance in terms of conditions. The University of Bristol is one example which has an established tradition of pay and promotion scales which for TOs which are comparable to those for research-focused academics. 

Despite the positive intentions to raise the status of teaching activities in higher education institutions, then, the implications of the TEF for both teaching activities and TOs is not yet clear. TO staff are responsible for a lot of teaching, and it should surely be the aim of the TEF architects and the institutions themselves to encourage positive self-reflection amongst teaching staff.

Unfortunately, there is a paradox of sorts here. If TEF results are good then the perception is that TOs are performing well, which means that there’s no great incentive for senior management to support a change to bolster the status of teaching activities and TOs. But if they’re not, then the TEF might be used as an unhelpful and untested signal of a lack of capability rather than being an indicator of the deeper issues which is the growing divide between research and teaching.

John McCormack is a lecturer at Cranfield University.

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