Pedagogy a poor second in promotions

Study finds 'hypocritical' sector fails to practise what it preaches. Rebecca Attwood reports

December 10, 2009

Universities stand accused of hypocrisy this week over their claims to value teaching, after a major study of promotions policy and practice found that many are still failing to reward academics for leadership in pedagogy.

Research by the Higher Education Academy and the University of Leicester's "Genie" Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning examines the promotion policies of 104 UK universities.

It states that the use of teaching criteria is inconsistent, often absent and not always applied even if included.

All the universities examined include research in their promotion policies, but the same does not apply to teaching, which is excluded from the policies of 31 institutions.

In the research-intensive Russell Group and 1994 Group universities, only 58 and 35 per cent respectively feature criteria on teaching and learning in their policies.

When the researchers examined how universities put their policies into practice, they were able to obtain data for only 46 institutions.

"This in itself identifies an issue of transparency and consistency," says the report, Reward and Recognition of Teaching in Higher Education.

Among the institutions that made data available, only a tiny proportion of senior promotions in the nine Russell Group and 1994 Group universities examined include teaching and learning as a significant component: 8 and 9 per cent respectively. For promotions to lecturer or senior lecturer positions, the figures are 26 and 24 per cent.

This compares with 49 per cent at lecturer or senior lecturer level and 41 per cent of senior promotions in the 26 new universities that provided data.

The study follows related HEA research, published in February, which surveyed more than 2,700 academics. It found that while 92 per cent thought teaching should be an important factor in promotions, only 43 per cent thought it was.

George MacDonald Ross, senior adviser to the HEA's Philosophical and Religious Studies Subject Centre, said: "Considering how long official inquiries and policy documents have been saying that teaching and research ought to have equal status, it is quite shocking that so many older universities still fail to recognise leadership in teaching for promotion purposes, particularly at the professorial level.

"It is hypocritical for certain universities to say in their mission statements and strategies that they give equal weight to teaching and research, and not to practise this in their promotion procedures."

Sue Burkill, chair of the Heads of Educational Development Group, said that although there had been a trend in recent years towards including teaching criteria more explicitly in promotion, there was widespread belief among academics that it had made little difference.

She said there was "a great deal of discussion" in the sector about what the concrete indicators of teaching quality should be and how effective they were. The politics of institutional promotion committees were also seen as critical factors, she added.

"There is a belief that, although academics may be put forward by their departments, once their promotion claims are submitted to institutional-level committees there are barriers due to the way they are constituted and the highly competitive atmosphere that prevails."

One academic, speaking anonymously, said that while teaching and learning criteria were included in their university's promotion policies, they were not aware of anyone promoted on that basis.

An associate dean for teaching and learning in a traditional university, who also chose not to be identified, agreed there was a "real problem".

"In my experience, this has a direct impact on the perceptions of academics as to what is most important. Many are ruthlessly prioritising their own research over teaching commitments, even though it is the latter that financially sustains their departments," they said.

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said its universities placed "huge importance" on teaching and learning, and a number of them were looking at how such skills could best be recognised by their promotion structures.

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group, said that "high-quality research and teaching are mutually supportive".

However, Aaron Porter, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said: "For too long, good research has been the primary criterion in academic promotion. As student expectations increase, this must change."

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