The UK's army of part-time lecturers, who teach up to a third of undergraduate degrees, has lacked support and secure employment for too long, says Richard Blackwell.
My experience of part-time teaching in the 1980s was atypical: I trained in teaching before I started. I was an industrial relations specialist and my job was to teach management and trade union negotiators the tricks of their trade. The typical part was that I was also a researcher seeking a full-time post. After four years part time, I got one.
Today's army of part-timers recruits from a wider pool than just budding researchers. Not all crave full-time employment either. A 2001 survey, In from the Cold , found that less than a third of part-timers, excluding postgraduates, wanted a full-time post. Many had demanding and lucrative careers in law, art and design and so on. Some 24 per cent combined part-time work with family duties. Others, however, were "portfolio workers", who, to make a living, were having to put together packages of part-time work, sometimes across the higher and further education borders.
Most estimates suggest that part-timers teach up to a third of undergraduate degrees. Intrinsic motivation and commitment to students are cited as common reasons for enjoying the work. But their links with departments can be fragile. Some complain that they receive little staff development and support.
It is easy to blame part-timers for not being proactive. After all, they can easily access institutional email systems and find out what is happening.
But the Future of Higher Education white paper places the onus on universities to improve human-resource strategies. It will become increasingly tricky if universities do nothing to address part-timers'
demands for greater support and advice, including mentoring and feedback on teaching. The requirement to have all new full-time staff on accredited training programmes by 2006 will also no doubt be extended to "core part-timers".
Fortunately, there are many examples of good practice at departmental level. Typically they involve a mix of formal local "training" and informal support, such as mentoring. Self-help or discussion groups are one way part-timers can share ideas and draw on peer support. A survey for the Learning and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre last year found that 12 out of 15 such groups established a year earlier in social sciences departments were continuing and that they worked best as part of a package of measures.
One paradox revealed in the In from the Cold survey was that, although more than 90 per cent of part-timers favoured training, only a minority had taken up any offers because of time pressure, non-payment and inapproporiateness. Some complained that the training was too generic and not located in their department or discipline. Others complained that they had too little time.
Many of these part-timers could perhaps have been reached online. Such help is increasingly available from Learning and Teaching Support Network subject centres, subject associations and institutional websites.
In some disciplines, such as business and management, there is an oversupply of people willing to teach part time and therefore a temptation to "let the market rip". But in other disciplines, tight local labour markets and uncompetitive pay compared with schools are stimulating a rethink and a move away from hourly paid, casual employment.
As university managers realise the potential benefits of having a core of longer-term, committed part-timers, so the opportunities for lobbying and pressing for change are growing. Changes in employment law also encourage getting everyone on an equal footing.
While some departments have shown what can be done locally to support part-timers, some institutions have begun to address employment issues centrally. Many vocational and professional courses could not run without specialist input from part-timers. These teachers make valued and refreshing contributions to the student learning experience. It is time that they came in from the cold.
Richard Blackwell is senior adviser, Learning and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre.
COMMON COMPLAINTS... AND SOLUTIONS
* No one seems to know I exist
Get yourself on email lists, seek contacts with other part-timers, lobby the department. Be prepared to use your personal email if institutional access is not available.
* Is there training for me?
Check institutional website, ask departmental contact, access external online help.
* I would like to talk to others like me for support
Get the department to organise a discussion group. Request a full-time staff member as convener and link.
* I don't know how I am doing
Get peers to observe teaching, seek advice from full-time staff.
* I want to improve
Make incremental changes based on feedback. Don't try to do it all yourself, seek external resources.