How do you stop teaching-focused staff from being seen as second-class academics?
With promotion and prestige still overwhelmingly linked to a scholar’s research record, and particularly the ability to win funding, many within the academy might view the task as near impossible.
However, various initiatives – including teaching qualifications, new promotion pathways linked to teaching excellence and institutional prizes – have arguably had some impact, and there are high hopes for the new teaching excellence framework.
But academics who focus on teaching students are still widely viewed as “second class” at elite universities, says a report by the Higher Education Academy published on 15 January.
In some cases, the status of teaching staff is lower still, with some staff referring to them as “not real academics”, according to the report, which draws on interviews with 10 pro vice-chancellors and 16 heads of department at Russell Group universities.
What can be done to rectify this situation? Getting rid of the “unhelpful” job titles associated with teaching staff – not least the “teaching fellow” tag itself – would be a start, the report says.
“‘Teaching fellow’ carries a kind-of-packhorse ‘covering somebody else’s research leave’ connotation,” explains one head of department.
Another states that the “teaching-only” tag alone “creates quite a lot of grumpiness” in the department, given the “perceived lack of respect”.
Dilly Fung, director of the University College London Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching, who co-authored the report with Claire Gordon of the London School of Economics, said that altering job titles would help to move towards parity of esteem between research and teaching staff.
“In an ideal world, everyone would simply be ‘lecturers’, with some focused more on research and some on teaching, depending on the point in their career,” said Dr Fung.
Other relatively simple changes could also help to increase the esteem attached to teaching, according to Dr Fung and Dr Gordon.
For instance, teaching-only staff in some universities are not even classified as academics. Instead these educators are deemed to be part of “professional services”.
This classification means that teaching-only staff “have no promotion prospects whatsoever”, according to one head of department quoted in the report.
“There is no ‘senior’ or anything like that – you’re just a teaching fellow,” they are quoted as saying, adding that “in professional services you can’t be promoted”.
Some universities already have more specialised teaching roles with proper promotion prospects, including professorships with a teaching focus.
But many staff interviewed for the HEA report are ambivalent about these posts.
“I’m quite clear that no one’s going to get promoted, certainly to professorial level and possibly not even [to the grade below], for good teaching,” says one pro vice-chancellor, adding that an academic needed to show an outstanding contribution to “education leadership”, such as creating a new course or being a world authority on pedagogy, to gain promotion.
One respondent recalls that a lecturer in their department who ran a “spectacularly successful master‘s course, bringing in well over £3 million a year” went for a promotion but was turned down, while others with good research and enterprise records were not.
“The one who didn’t get it was by far and away the most important person...because it’s not just the income, it’s the fact that that income represents, God knows how many individuals, who come to this place to be damned impressed and leave here lifelong members of the [institutional] family,” the head of department says.
To combat this bias against teaching-focused staff, promotion panels should not consist only of senior academics likely to have risen owing to their research prowess, the report says.
Instead, more professional services staff and potentially senior management focused on education should play a part in the decisions.
“There have been changes to promotion criteria to address the lack of recognition for outstanding teaching, but the change in culture has not happened as quickly,” said Dr Fung.
However, recruiting more staff on the grounds of teaching prowess just didn’t make sense to many research-intensive institutions given their strategies, another pro vice-chancellor admits in the report.
“If you want to get from, say, 800 staff in the research excellence framework to 1,000, employing staff who you can’t submit is not very logical really,” the pro vice-chancellor is quoted as saying.
Improving the equivalence of pay, recognition and prestige for teaching staff is vital to keeping some of the best employees in this realm, and in ensuring that teaching quality stays high, said Dr Fung.
“It would be an enormous step forward if staff committed to teaching didn’t feel they had to move back to research or move to a teaching-focused university to get promoted,” she added.