by MERLIN CROSSLEY
Universities create knowledge and pass it on – research and teaching. Cricket teams bat and bowl. All the players also field. Academics do administration. Over the last few decades many university managers have encouraged academic staff to be all-rounders, to teach, to research, and to do administration.
That’s changing now and we’re seeing education-focussed staff emerging as the fastest growing category. Below I’ll argue that is a good thing but first – how did we ever get stuck on the idea that the whole team should be made up of all-rounders?
I think the university league tables had an influence because they primarily reflect visible research metrics. They were created by newspapers, consultancies, or specific universities. They are viewed by many as a sort of global currency or stock market implicitly representing institutional value. While most university managers are very wary of the tables and their methodologies, and impacts, they can’t ignore them.
The research assessment exercises were another factor. These were established by governments to assess the quality (and often quantity) of research, and check that it was up to world standards and providing value for money. In the UK the early assessment exercises verified these standards and the government, assured that universities were accountable, significantly increased research funding. In Australia research outputs have increased and some people conclude that our assessment exercises worked too, while others think universities just became better at reporting achievements. Perhaps both are true.
Another influence was the Dawkins restructure of the late 1980s that included bringing together several research-intensive universities with institutions that had proud traditions in teaching the professions, but little or no experience with research. There was a desire to bring staff together and avoid having two classes of academics – those with PhDs and active research programmes, and those with neither. Many institutions encouraged research across the board.
Finally, many universities have a deep commitment to “research-led” teaching. Discoveries have been piling up as research has expanded so having some teachers who are engaged at the forefront of research helps ensure people are up to date and able to convey the latest developments to their students.
It’s less clear why so many institutions jumped to the conclusion that every single teacher, every coach, and every educational developer should also lead in research, but the outcome of all the above factors was that nearly everyone (basically everyone except the few whose salaries were funded by external research grant agencies) was expected to bat, bowl and field.
But gradually concerns have surfaced. With the publication of sector-wide student experience surveys, institutions have become more aware of student sentiment and asked whether teaching is being prioritised properly. At the same time, rising research costs and the accompanying intensifying competition have meant that it is no longer realistic to expect all academics to be running their own research programmes. The success rates for individual project grants have fallen from around 25 per cent a few decades ago to 10-15 per cent. There are many good staff who are now unable to sustain long term programmes of research.
But enrolments kept growing so the opportunity arose to appoint more student-dedicated education-focussed staff. Initially, many of these staff held casual or sessional appointments (and that is still the case) but gradually as teaching periods have been extended across more of the year (including summer sessions) it has become feasible to appoint more staff into longer term education-focussed roles. Early concerns about career paths and promotion opportunities were addressed by carefully mapping out the expectations, and establishing an array of agreed measures, beyond just student feedback, such as peer review and teaching portfolios that showcased achievements.
As I have watched the initiatives unfold in my institution I have been delighted again and again by the intended and unintended consequences. Being able to provide more secure employment – that is not dependent on winning the next competitive grant – was the obvious first milestone. But other achievements are also worth highlighting. The data shows that students appreciate the education-focussed staff, and education-focussed staff are being successful in promotions.
The highlight, however, has been the establishment of a mutually supportive institution-wide community of scholars. Unlike researchers who are often necessarily siloed in and by their discipline-specific expertise, relying on collaborators with big machines in other universities, education-focussed staff can reach out and connect with like-minded colleagues in any discipline to discuss emerging shared challenges in digital teaching, assessment, or student support.
As the education-focussed community grows in strength its achievements become more visible and its influence on university management and strategy increases too. It won’t all be smooth sailing, of course, and we’ll have to keep adapting but the input of this new community, combined with more attention to student voices that comes along with the initiative, means it’s very likely we’ll find a good path forward.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life