Bristol opens career path to give teachers equal footing

September 14, 2007

University develops structure to offer teaching staff, like researchers, clear progression route, writes Tony Tysome.

The status of academics who specialise in teaching in research-intensive institutions is being redrawn under a scheme introduced at Bristol University.

A distinctive career "pathway" for staff whose main responsibilities are to cover teaching and educational needs has been developed at Bristol in an attempt to "regularise" the position of such staff in relation to academics whose main focus is research.

Grades ranging from teaching assistant up to professorial teaching fellow have been created to ensure that teaching staff can progress up the career ladder as easily as researchers. Pay on each of the grades mirrors that of staff in mixed teaching-research positions, including professors.

David Clarke, pro vice-chancellor with responsibility for personnel at Bristol, said the job evaluation process had been the main driver for the change.

He said: "The individual job evaluations revealed more than 120 individuals, previously hidden in 'academic other' and similar grades, whose work was primarily devoted to full-time teaching duties and whose roles were crucial to a variety of degree programmes across the faculties."

The "hidden" teaching workforce included teaching fellows, veterinary clinician teachers, medical clinical educators, dental technical instructors, language co-ordinators and tutors and film and television production tutors.

Professor Clarke said: "Generally, there was no recognised career progression for such persons and certainly no institutional recognition of the value of their work."

Bristol is calling its new career route "pathway three", with one pathway for staff on standard academic contracts with duties to teach and research, and another pathway for those whose primary duties are research.

Although some other Russell Group institutions have professorial teaching grades, Bristol believes it is the first to develop a full-blown teaching career pathway.

Universities outside the Russell Group are also working to recognise teaching staff careers.

A discussion paper on the scheme, which started last month, says it will help to meet the needs of disciplines with heavy teaching loads - often those relating to the professions - and will also free time for other academics to focus entirely on research.

Some higher education experts believe there is a danger that teaching-only staff could become marginalised by being segregated in this way.

Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, said he could not comment on the Bristol scheme but he felt that institutions needed to ensure that teaching-only staff were given genuinely equal status.

He said: "If such schemes are used as a device for freeing up research or allowing greater research capacity, that hardly sounds like a move that will ensure parity of esteem between teaching and research."

But Professor Clarke said Bristol's scheme was giving proper recognition to the importance of teaching for the first time.

He said: "Without this scheme, these staff would be ghettoised. But through this process we can show we value them and put them on an equal status with other academics. We don't pretend we have got everything right yet, but it is definitely a step in the right direction."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We support greater recognition and reward for good teaching and so, in principle, we would very much welcome the Bristol initiative.

"One of the problems is that it isn't very widespread in the sector, particularly promotion to professor in a Russell Group university. Other universities should look to follow Bristol's lead and involve the UCU at all stages."

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