What’s the score on university teaching?

Like cricket, academia needs specialists, and revised calendars and tech will show teachers belong in the top order, says Merlin Crossley

February 23, 2017
Marcus Butt illustration (23 February 2017)
Source: Marcus Butt

There will always be, and should always be, a role for casual staff in university teaching.

Practitioners in various professions, such as architecture, law and business, can enliven teaching with up-to-the-minute real world experience. Outside experts also enable even the smaller universities to expand the scope of their syllabuses beyond the knowledge of their full-time academics.

In addition, doctoral students can earn extra money by taking tutorials and demonstrating in labs, and can often connect more effectively with students than senior academics. Some recent graduates, too, value temporary academic work as a stepping stone to their ultimate career.

But everyone agrees that the army of chronically casual, insecure staff who support student learning in many university systems should not go on growing indefinitely.

It is true that employing sessional staff can sometimes be cheaper and less risky for management than committing to tenured, full-time staff of uncertain suitability. But the issue is more complicated than that.

Another major factor in the growth of sessional staff is the rise of league tables that rank universities primarily on the basis of their research productivity per full-time staff member. Increasing or, in some disciplines, fluctuating student numbers are another more minor factor, as is universities’ felt need to diversify curricula in the face of competition for students.

At the same time, several historic characteristics of universities have favoured an expansion in casual staff while limiting growth in full-time positions. One is the fact that teaching typically goes on for only about half the year, meaning that teaching-focused staff cannot be gainfully employed all year round.

Second, historic employment agreements appear to some to require that all staff contribute to both teaching and research. And academics have themselves sometimes been reluctant to move into teaching-focused roles because of uncertainty over whether their contributions will be properly recognised and rewarded.

But big changes in technology, global competition and the expectations of students may mean that all these issues can now be addressed.

Take rankings. In the past, some university managers tried to boost their institutions’ position by leaning on every full-time academic to do some research. But as research metrics become better at measuring quality rather than quantity, this push will inevitably lessen.

The short academic calendar, which historically allowed students to return home to help with the harvest, may also become a thing of the past. My institution, the University of New South Wales in Australia (where we currently teach for only 24 weeks a year), is introducing a new calendar from 2019, consisting of three 10-week terms and an optional five-week summer term. A teaching year of up to 35 weeks – together with new opportunities to develop essential electronic teaching resources during remaining non-teaching periods – means that it is now possible to offer year-round job opportunities for full-time teaching-focused staff.

And technology will help overcome the difficulties with measuring teaching contribution, just as it has in measuring research contribution. Remember that h-indices, impact factors and other citation-based indices were not readily available until the big databases, Web of Science and Scopus, were developed. Such measures remain contentious and I expect that measures of teaching excellence, such as student experience surveys, progression statistics and graduate destination surveys, will also need to be interpreted with caution. But I am confident that it will become increasingly clear which teachers are having the greatest positive impact and, at my institution, we will reward their achievements by promotion all the way to professorial level.

Technology will allow innovative teachers not only to develop and test new approaches but also to showcase their contributions. They will be able to reach out across the world, offering online videos, quizzes, dialogues and limitless other approaches to teaching and assessment. The availability of such material on the internet will also make it much easier to carry out peer review of teaching, which has always been good in theory but difficult in practice.

The global competition for students and the ability both for students to share their experiences on the internet and for others to map student careers on professional networking sites only adds to the likelihood that, in the future, the contributions of teachers who provide a life-changing experience will be much more highly valued.

Some will worry that more specialisation in teaching or research may bifurcate the academic community and rob students of exposure to the greatest researchers. That is indeed a risk, but only if it goes too far. In the main, exposing students to teachers who have dedicated their careers to education can only result in an improved experience and, therefore, increased future recruitment.

To put it in terms that most Australians will relate to, there is a certain joy in the wild spontaneity of a beach cricket game, in which even the most unsuited must both bat and bowl. But the specialisation of the teams into batters and bowlers, while retaining some all-rounders and allowing transitions as careers develop, is likely to result in a much more edifying spectacle. And those teams that lead this transition to greater professionalism are likely to record many more victories.

Merlin Crossley is deputy vice-chancellor (education) at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

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