Teaching fellowships highlight the value of professional services staff

While academics may be dismissive, the process helps their professional colleagues recognise their own scholarly contributions, say four of them

October 8, 2023
A librarian helping a student
Source: iStock/JackF

A recent Times Higher Education article posed the provocative question “Do teaching fellowships actually improve teaching?” The academics who wrote the article argued that they typically do not.

The article raised valid concerns about the sometimes bureaucratic and opaque schemes run by UK institutions to help their academics obtain AdvanceHE fellowships, which are often required for promotion. However, as professional services staff who have undertaken varying levels of fellowship, as well as mentored and reviewed others through the scheme, we take a much more positive view.

The journey to fellowship recognition is undoubtedly challenging. Developing an application requires translating everyday practice into formal descriptions aligned with the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). The reflective and evidence-based process can seem abstract. And success is not guaranteed, no matter your level of experience or seniority.

Yet for many professional staff, these hurdles impart meaningful professional development and foster critical engagement with their roles and impact in the wider university. In particular, translating daily practices into pedagogical language causes participants to recognise and articulate their scholarly contributions, strengthening their identities.

This is underlined by research currently being undertaken at the University of Derby exploring the experience of professional services staff pursuing fellowship recognition. Interviews with librarians, learning technologists, technicians and others have revealed a transformative impact. One learning technologist described fellowship as making her realise “what I could do and what is available to do…I’ve realised I needed to push myself a bit further.” A lab technician agreed that “it does give you a boost” and the confidence to contribute ideas. And a learning technologist realised: “I am making some kind of impact. I’m not just sat here doing nothing.”

In that sense, the question of whether fellowship demonstrably improves teaching quality misses the point somewhat. We suggest that it performs a subtler function: enhancing reflective practice and shared understanding of diverse contributions to student learning.

Professional services staff facilitate learning in numerous ways often not captured directly by metrics such as course evaluations. A library workshop on search skills, a careers session on interview techniques, a tutoring conversation about academic integrity – all enable student development. Yet because they are not always curriculum-based, professional services staff often feel such teaching contributions are undervalued or overlooked.

Fellowship helps incentivise connection and sharing across the subtle hierarchies that persist between “academic” and “non-academic” roles. A librarian, for instance, described fellowship making him feel he had “joined the university club”.

This is essential given the UKPSF’s emphasis on the whole student learning experience inside and outside the classroom. Supporting this holistic experience requires broad collaboration, and fellowship recognition prompts and validates these conversations – which, in turn, facilitate compliance with regulatory conditions imposed by the Office for Students (OfS).

No one would dispute the need for academics to reflect systematically on pedagogy and classroom practice. AdvanceHE fellowship prompts this reflection through peer review and feedback, and the same applies to professional services staff seeking to deepen their roles in student learning. Working on a fellowship application confers time and space to think purposefully about one’s practice, scaffolded by dialogue with colleagues, and supports the cultivation of a growth mindset: the idea that we can and should always be seeking to better understand and improve our own teaching practices.

Undeniably there are criticisms to be made about the bureaucratic nature of some professional recognition schemes, and we concede that they might not always enhance performance directly. But the increased confidence, communication and critical thinking they instil surely contribute positively across institutions.

Rather than abandon Advance HE fellowship, UK universities need to increase access to them and create more inclusive, demystified schemes that go beyond bureaucratic box-ticking. The emphasis must be firmly on fostering genuine communities of both academic and professional staff to reflect on pedagogy. Both staff and students can only benefit.

Caroline Ball is academic librarian at the University of Derby. Sarah George is subject librarian at the University of Bradford. Thomas Peach is interim head of library and learning services at York St John University. Puiyin Wong is digital learning producer at the University of the Arts London.

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If you want to get promoted in UK academia you will probably need to apply for an Advance HE fellowship. But there is widespread scepticism that this extended ‘box-ticking exercise’ improves pedagogy, says Amanda Goodall, while Martin Rich considers how the programme might be made fit for purpose

Reader's comments (3)

This makes no sense: the HE fellowship is supposed to be certification that you have training and experience to teach. If the argument is that it's useful only to people who had previously been " sat here doing nothing" it's not exactly a ringing endorsement. We're fighting for every single pound for research, PhD scholarships, even offices. Maybe let's fix that before we hire people that need to learn a list of pointless jargon in order to get like "educators".
*feel like educators.
The quote is actually: “I am making some kind of impact. I’m NOT just sat here doing nothing.” (my emphasis). The point of this article is that accreditation can help those who are teaching but not in formal academic roles recognise that their teaching is of equal value to that of lecturers