It’s time to fully support promotions on the education pathway

Specialist teaching roles such as librarians and learning designers may not map perfectly on to criteria for professorial posts, but they make significant contributions to the student experience and should be rewarded as such, argues Harriet Dunbar-Morris

Harriet Dunbar-Morris's avatar
University of Buckingham
14 Dec 2023
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In 2023, I accomplished a rare feat: I was promoted to professor on the education pathway. Although easier to do now than, say, 10 years ago, rising up the ranks through one’s teaching practice is still less common than through one’s research. For those of us on an education career route, our strengths don’t always map on to institutions’ hiring and promotion criteria. This means if we want to progress in our careers, we must learn how to communicate our capabilities effectively.

My own journey would have merited a bit of help from Kirstie and Phil of British property reality show Location, Location, Location fame. I imagine them sitting down with me, a prospective professor, and working out what kind of candidate I was: country or city, a “doer-upper” or a ready to move in.

Actually, I had (much more relevant) help, several years ago, from higher education consultant Jon Scott, with whom I was matched when I joined Profs in Prep – a group for all those, wherever they are on the journey, considering promotion on the education or professional practice pathway. Jon mentored me through providing evidence of my “impact, impact, impact!” We sat down and discussed what I wanted to do and we worked out a plan.

One of the first tips that Profs in Prep founders Julie Hulme and Deborah Lock gave me was to consider my “shop window”. What did I want to be known for, and how should I sell myself? Or, as Kirstie and Phil would counsel: get your house sale-ready by clearing away the clutter and showcasing the best selling points of the asset.

Jon and I talked about my selling points and what was still needed for a strong application for consideration for a personal chair position (a UK role awarded for individual excellence) according to my institution’s criteria at that time. I was not exactly a “doer-upper”, but I did need to fill a few gaps in my CV to ensure that everyone considering my application at every stage in the promotion process felt that I had fully responded to the criteria. I had plenty to work with. The trick was to clearly state what my impact had been and to provide evidence of it.

“Easy,” you might say. Well, yes, if one is selling a house. An estate agent can easily put together a lovely brochure showcasing your property. An application for professorship, however, must comply with word counts, criteria and templates; rules about who to put as referees and who to suggest as external assessors that one must not have worked with (and the panel might not choose them as assessors anyway); and make your case without necessarily being there to make it yourself in person. Some institutions do not interview their aspiring professors. Phew!

Some institutions are strict on word count or the template for the application, the CV and the referees; others are more laissez-faire. But they all want to know about your substantial impact and to see evidence of it. Kirstie (or Phil) shouting: “Impact, impact, impact!” was the soundtrack to my promotion journey – and it should be the soundtrack to yours.

Most importantly, don’t give up! I got knocked back, and many professors in your institutions will have been, too. Ask for feedback when it happens to you. It will help you to reorient your application and ensure that you hit the “buyers” with the “selling points”.

Sometimes, feedback can be disappointing. Use it as an opportunity to deepen the promotion panel’s understanding of what you do. For example, one feedback point to me said: “For someone applying through the education route, you don’t do much teaching.” I addressed this in my next application, making it clear that as dean of learning and teaching, it was not my role to undertake teaching but to ensure the implementation of policies and frameworks to support the enhancement of learning and teaching across the institution. I helped them to understand the context of my application and how my work had impact.

I am aware of individuals on panels commenting on how difficult it is for those of us with a slightly different profile, a slightly different route, a slightly different role to address the university criteria. Be aware that the assessors, the panel or the referees might not readily see your experience as relevant to the general criteria, and be prepared to show them how your selling points are indeed related to them. Think back to the property brochure that will always detail how far away the nearest schools and train stations are – key criteria for prospective home buyers. In your application, you need to tell the reader equally as clearly why you should be promoted on the education pathway.

The education pathway is much wider than simply teaching. It is about providing support for an enhanced student experience – the reason why universities are here in the first place. Many people in universities might be seeking promotion on the education route, including education/academic developers, technology-enhanced specialists, learning designers, librarians, information service specialists, quality assurance and enhancement specialists, or careers and employability specialists. One cannot teach if all the bases are not there, and students are not successful if there are not good outcomes that are supported by many of these very key staff.

To return to my house-selling metaphor – one cannot sell a house if there is a frontage but no foundation. The education pathway has many floors, and too many institutions forget that when it comes to promotion. Some institutions don’t even allow some of the staff mentioned above to apply for promotion on the education route. Let’s work together to ensure that we all focus on the impact of anyone who supports student learning and reward them appropriately in our promotion processes.

Harriet Dunbar-Morris is pro vice-chancellor academic and professor of higher education at the University of Buckingham.

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