A long-heard complaint from academics is that although government ministers and students demand more focus on teaching, it is research that ultimately dominates league table standings and financial success.
But the 2012 increase in tuition fees means that student intake now has a greater effect on income and vice-chancellors are subsequently under pressure to prove to students that they value the quality of teaching as much as research.
This perhaps explains why there has been a spike in the number of universities introducing professorships exclusively for teaching.
Out of 99 universities responding to a Freedom of Information request by Times Higher Education, almost half said they now offer teaching-route professorships. And despite the intense focus placed on the research excellence framework, plenty of research-led universities are among them.
At first glance, it would seem that institutions are responding to a concern from students and politicians that teaching is not valued.
But a closer look suggests that in many universities, such professorial appointments are still far from the norm. Since 2008 at the University of Birmingham, for example, just eight of 120 awarded professorships (6.7 per cent) have been granted with a focus on teaching, and more than half of them were before 2011.
Official reports have confirmed this slow progress. In 2009, the Higher Education Academy published a report, Reward and Recognition in Higher Education: Institutional Policies and their Implementation, which confirmed that most academics felt teaching was not rewarded properly. In its July 2013 follow-up, Rebalancing Promotion in the HE sector: Is Teaching Excellence being Rewarded?, an analysis of 72 case studies across a range of universities found that although institutions were beginning to put promotion incentives in place, they were not actually putting it into practice.
Annette Cashmore, director of the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Genetics at the University of Leicester, and co-author of last year’s HEA report, admitted that progress was lagging. “It’s moving very slowly. Institutions feel they have to have policies, but it takes a long time to work through the culture of a university. The culture has to change.”
A major part of that will be looking at whether teaching-only positions enjoy high prestige. The 2013 HEA report flagged this problem, noting that “several interviewees expressed the feeling that teaching-focused career tracks and positions are treated as second-class options”.
Abolish teaching fellows
Professor Cashmore has gone so far as to call for the tradition of teaching fellows to be abolished, pointing out that the smaller pay packets and reduced working benefits actually provide a disincentive to follow teaching routes.
“Teaching fellows have a detrimental effect. At Leicester we’re doing away with them and I would like to see other institutions do that,” she said.
Gervas Huxley, a teaching fellow in the department of economics at the University of Bristol, has publicly called for improved conditions for teachers in higher education. But he was reluctant to get too excited about emerging teaching professorships. “[It] is a step in the right direction. However, I have reservations. They are a substitute rather than a solution for dealing with the more fundamental problem that teaching is not rewarded,” he said.
He added that “poor promotion prospects are particularly acute” for staff on teaching-only contracts and, on the face of it, the new professorships should improve the situation. “Unfortunately there is a snag. In most universities, to be appointed [a teaching professor] you must publish on pedagogy,” he said. “It sounds like a reductio ad absurdum to say that teaching professors must publish on teaching – unfortunately it’s true. If we are not careful we will end up with more professors of pedagogy than professors of physics.”
This is a problem that is hard to resolve. There is an established framework for assessing research excellence but determining teaching quality is much trickier, especially if you remove pedagogic dissemination from the equation.
Judy Harris, a professor of physiology at Bristol, helped to set up the steering group for the university’s Teaching and Learning in Higher Education programme and her research into teaching incentives in 2011 delivered similar results to the HEA’s.
“The REF is a factor. Money is tied to the REF, and top research is a big financial advantage. But another really important issue is that it is much easier to quantify excellence in research. It’s much more difficult to have quantitative drivers for teaching excellence,” she said.
In another report last year, entitled Promoting Teaching: Making Evidence Count, the HEA set out three perspectives for promotion: “scope of activity”, “sphere of influence” and “source of evidence”. The boxes to tick range across good student evaluation scores, positive peer reviews and publications on teaching. On incentives for promotion, the report expresses a preference for a blend, including financial.
But Max Jones, a modern history lecturer at the University of Manchester and winner of a university “best teacher” award, maintains a preference for the traditional model of keeping research at the heart of teaching.
“Although I welcome and support such initiatives to reward good teaching and recognise different skills, I also think it’s important to support the established teaching and research model,” he said.
“I support the vision of a university where students are taught at least some of the time by researchers in their field. I want to be an excellent teacher and an excellent researcher and value the synergy between the two activities.”
Professor Harris is conscious of these concerns, but ultimately supports a future for teaching-route professorships. “There is a danger of dividing research and teaching as students do need research experts for some of their teaching. [Teaching professorships] are the way to go, but the culture that needs to be achieved is that different people need a different balance.”
And those who have achieved a teaching-route professorship, such as Sue Pryce at the University of Nottingham – where, she said, lecturers have to pass the postgraduate certificate in higher education – are even more convinced. “I wouldn’t say everything’s fine, but we’re getting there. Once upon a time it was almost not worth being a good teacher,” she said.