One in five UK professors promoted for their teaching – survey

Poll reveals how once ‘non-existent’ path to top tier of academia has now become ‘common’

February 24, 2023
Artist Charlie Brouwer adds another ladder to his creation as a project grows past 200 ladders to illustrate One in five UK professors promoted for their teaching – survey
Source: Alamy

One in five professors in the UK have been promoted to their current position for their teaching achievements, according to a new survey that suggests efforts to raise the status of classroom activities are paying off.

While most professors are still promoted based on their research, a poll by the National Council of University Professors (NCUP) found academics were frequently joining the UK professoriate on account of their teaching, with 18.4 per cent of 1,018 respondents saying they were promoted on a teaching route.

While the survey offers only a snapshot of how Britain’s 23,000 professors achieved their positions, the prevalence of teaching-led promotions was striking and indicated a significant shift in reward and recognition practices, explained NCUP’s president Roger Watson, who, until autumn last year, was professor of nursing at the University of Hull.

“I cannot recall anyone being promoted by this route when I set out as an academic in 1998 at the University of Edinburgh and probably only encountered it about a decade ago,” said Professor Watson, who is academic dean of Southwest Medical University’s School of Nursing in Luzhou, China.

Welcoming the shift, Professor Watson said that teaching-led promotions to professor had gone from being “non-existent” to becoming an “established route [that] is now more common”, he said.

NCUP profs

That view is echoed by the NCUP’s study, The Role of the UK Professoriate, which notes that a similar study in 1991 did not even mention the possibility of promotion to professor via teaching, while a 2015 study by the Royal Academy of Engineering urged the higher education community to “urgently…develop teaching-based promotion measures” that could lead to professorships.

The NCUP study describes the rise of teaching-led promotions to professor as a “positive development” but adds that these “routes to professorship other than via the traditional research route should be more widely publicised and made available”.

The rise of teaching-driven professors follows efforts led by the Higher Education Academy, now Advance HE, to clarify promotion policies for teaching-focused staff in the form of the Professional Standards Framework, as well as the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017.

The growing number of teaching-focused professors was likely to reflect the rise of certain subjects where teaching-related promotions were more accepted, said Professor Watson. “In my own subject of nursing, I imagine it is more common because many have an educational, not a research background, while it is not as easy to land large research grants for research in nursing as it perhaps is in medicine or other disciplines,” said Professor Watson.

The NCUP’s survey also asked about the roles undertaken by professors and found that women – who made up 37 per cent of respondents – and non-white British professors were more likely to take on many departmental roles than male professors, who, in turn, were more likely to describe themselves as a mentor. “Faced with the under-representation of both groups, there is a need to increase their involvement in mentorship to act as role models,” the study notes.

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Reader's comments (7)

The increasing equity between Education and Scholarship, or Teaching Focussed, paths alongside the more traditional Research focus or balanced paths is certainly to be welcomed. The next challenge for HEIs, who often have very and archaic structures, is to have similar transparent paths for 'non academic status' teaching and learning professionals. It is not unusual in my experience for there to be no promotion pathway at all for professional staff, let alone a transparent or accessible one.
How many of these teaching Professor are in fact managers who have done no teaching but just want to get a cheap Professor title? How many of the teaching professors are in second rate Universities and how many in the Russell group? Can we not give them another title like ProfessoT since they do not do any decent research?
Wow. Such sniping.
The pathway into the professoriate remains largely through achievement of research outcomes, but it is clear that facilitating the learning of others is increasingly recognised. Look a little deeper at the survey to see that role expectations have increased as well- this may be more significant as the average number of substantive roles is five: take your pick from: teaching, management, clinical work, doctoral supervision, administration and governance- as well as research. The ivory tower for research-only chairs is not only multicoloured, it may also be leaning!
Well, here we have another trend moving the values of the HE sector towards the corporate. I know quite a few deserving colleagues who did reasonably good research and great teaching gaining a chair. I can perhaps see the case for these being given a chair. I do note the part of the pie chart indicates 'other routes' at about 20%. This, I assume, is managey/administrator related promotions. This, like a knotweed metaphor, is a growth that strangles the genuine academic promotion route. No doubt, many readers have their own list of the utter duffers with little actual talent in the domains outlined above. In one institution I know of, someone with an abysmal teaching record, a very thin research output and no PI grants, rose to becoming a PVC. Once this dizzying promotion has been awarded, a professor ship followed in short order in their oruginal 'field'. This individual had had little genuine high level management experience and simply spouts whatever the UUK line is on any given topic. On balance I do not believe this trend serves the public and institutional good. It means duffers can be mistaken for someone who has made sustained and important contributions of real worth.
At the rate this is going, uni will basically be just another stage of secondary school. What all these people praising the new teaching-focused, corporate structure of British universities are failing to grasp, is that students benefit from taking classes from talented researchers. And conversely, talented academics agree to teach because they have freedom to pursue research. The system has worked well for centuries, as a way of advancing knowledge, and disseminating it to non academics through teaching. As we put more and more emphasis on teaching and pastoral care, piling on admin tasks and taking away time and resources for teaching, the implicit arrangement falls apart. Talented researchers will leave academia. Teachers who have no meaningful connection to research in their field will focus more on presentation than content. Already I can see students increasingly care about formats and marking criteria etc... than the actual content of the coursework. And increasingly, as their professors are just teachers rather than respected intellectuals, they're right to think this way.
What I've never understood about this is: presumably someone who gets a teaching-led promotion to professor does, like other professors, less actual teaching than a lecturer/senior lecturer? In which case how does this raise the status of teaching?