Sights set on dual career

August 18, 2006

Academics who love teaching but want freedom to pursue other interests are turning to The Open University, writes Olga Wojtas.

The Open University is becoming the institution of choice for academics who fancy a career change but are worried about giving up teaching altogether.

Following the well-documented national trend for downsizing and career diversification, some academics are keen to leave their full-time university jobs to try alternative career paths.

But many who are tempted to take the plunge still feel a strong vocational affinity with academe.

Peter Syme, the OU's Scottish director, said that growing numbers of academics were joining the OU for lifestyle reasons.

"The old model was that (OU tutors) were probably also employed by another academic institution," he said. "What's interesting is the movement in recent years, with more (of our tutors) pursuing a portfolio career or for whom we are the main academic employer."

The OU has a small core of full-time staff but relies on thousands of "associate lecturers" or tutors who combine their OU teaching with other work. Some 47 per cent of associate lecturers work part time either in higher education or elsewhere.

Will Swann, director of students, said: "If you go back to the 1970s, we depended on people who were full-time academics in other universities, but that is less the case now. We have no figures, but we are drawing from a more diverse pool of people now."

Alan Cayless is an example of the new breed of OU lecturer who can time his tutoring to suit himself, carry out research when he wants and combine this with running his own business.

Dr Cayless initially fitted the traditional OU model, combining part-time tutoring in physics and astronomy while working at Imperial College London.

He became self-employed a decade ago, specialising in medical imaging for eye health, but continued tutoring with the OU.

"I've never thought of giving up the OU. It's one of the things I absolutely love doing," he said.

"What we teach is definitely on a par with what would happen in a conventional university. But I've found that I get on a lot better teaching adult learners than (typical) undergraduate students."

Dr Cayless said there now appeared to be more paperwork and red tape in conventional universities, which got in the way of teaching.

What appealed to him about the OU was balancing teaching alongside other activities, and feeling he had more control of his time.

"The teaching workload comes in fits and starts. You don't work nine to five, and it wouldn't suit somebody who wants to have all their weekends free. But hours don't seem to matter if you're doing something varied and interesting."

Dr Cayless said he believed OU tutoring helped his own professional development. "A number of times I've been busy trying to solve a very technical problem, where I will think back to some of the techniques I use when teaching and look at it in a different way," he said.

He has also been able to carry out research through his involvement in course development. "Rather than just teaching, I felt it was quite important to give something back," he said.

"There's an opportunity to do all the academic things a person in a full-time post in a university would do, but you're a little bit more in charge."

But Dr Cayless warned against anyone looking on the OU as a cash cow for minimal work. "If you went into it thinking you were going to get rich you'd be in for a disappointment," he said.

"It's not something that would provide a total income, but part of an income, and it gives you the ability to have a balanced selection of different activities. For me, that's very important."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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