'Awesome' teaching may be a dead end

August 24, 2007

A postdoctoral researcher who has been hailed as an "awesome" teacher by his students fears that he will be forced to leave higher education because career advancement is based too rigidly on research output.

Peter Saffrey, a postdoc in computer science at Glasgow University, spoke out to The Times Higher this week after we reported the case of Alan Jenkins, the Oxford Brookes professor who claimed this month that his career-long focus on teaching practice, which had earned him an international reputation, damaged his promotion prospects.

Dr Saffrey said he had been "actively seeking teaching responsibilities" at work.

"When the feedback forms were returned, my performance was very highly rated - the word 'awesome' was used more than once," he said.

"However, my publication record is not so 'awesome' and almost certainly not good enough to secure a permanent post," he said.

"This means that even though I have been officially rated an 'awesome' lecturer, no computing department in the country would give me a job as a lecturer. Isn't that a bit silly?"

Stressing that his grievance was not with his current employer, Glasgow, but with the sector as a whole, Dr Saffrey said: "It will probably mean that I end up working in the IT industry, which is sad because I really enjoy both teaching and research.

"I just can't write papers as fast as the system requires. It seems a shame that not ticking the right boxes will mean that my lecturing ability can't be put to good use."

Glasgow University declined to comment, beyond noting that Dr Saffrey had not applied for a post at the university.

A Glasgow spokesperson said that Dr Saffrey was not speaking specifically about his experience at Glasgow.

Another, more senior, UK academic, who asked not to be named, also told The Times Higher about her frustrations in being repeatedly denied promotion.

"Teachers are looked down on and not promoted or rewarded," she said. "I have been in a teaching position for more than a decade, and none of my faculty teaching colleagues has ever been promoted. We have been told on numerous occasions that a senior teaching position is not appropriate for us but is a means of removing weak researchers from the research assessment exercise to boost the ratings.

"So we have a position in my institution where those in a senior teaching position may or may not care about teaching and certainly do not engage in the scholarship, development or research of education.

"I have been rejected for promotion to senior lecturer on two occasions, and the excuses become flimsier each time. I have lost count of the times that I have been told that it will happen 'some time in the future' and that my participation in cross-institutional projects (worth in excess of £1 million) 'might' put me in a better position for promotion," she said.

"I no longer believe any of these promises. In the meantime, there are constantly moving goalposts, and we work towards a goal to be told after the work has been done that it is inappropriate for promotion. At the same time, we watch research colleagues in their meteoric rise through the ranks to professorhood. Focusing on teaching is a death blow for the career, while institutions slavishly conform to the RAE."

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