academics and university staff
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When universities’ success is measured on research outputs via rankings, Research Excellence Framework results and grant funding, it is unsurprising that many institutions have sought to push staff down either research- or teaching-specific pathways.
Of course, many academics still split their duties between research and teaching activities, plus leadership and administration, but the trend towards developing a cadre of REF-able researchers with minimal teaching responsibilities and a separate group of teaching staff whose research extends only as far as the pedagogical application of their technical subject has accelerated in recent years; about a fifth of full-time academic staff were described as teaching-only in 2020, almost double the proportion compared with four years earlier.
The result is a new generation of specialist educators whose role as academics is not to produce original research, but to train undergraduate and postgraduate students. In theory, these educationalists will dedicate more time to truly engaging with teaching that is participative, collaborative, inclusive and equitable. However, if we assume that the best research comes from the best supported researchers, we must also assume that the best teaching comes from the best supported teaching academics.
But how is the sector helping those in teaching-focused roles? For early career researchers, the intentions are clear: the Researcher Development Concordat, now in its second iteration agreed in 2019, was developed to maximise the quality of research through supporting researchers. That document focuses on those for whom research is a “primary responsibility”, but it is not clear whether it applies to those for whom research is less central to their day-to-day activities.
Nonetheless, the concordat is still significant; it recognises how early career researchers are an indispensable resource for the UK sector that should be protected, supported and developed. From the concordat also came several “toolkits” to support the development of early career researchers, recognising that bespoke assistance is needed between the completion of a PhD and establishment as an independent researcher or principal investigator.
These toolkits set out clear and specific actions that can be taken by managers, institutions, faculties and departments to support early career researchers, moving away from the idea that good-quality support happens accidentally. Instead, they offer detailed checklists that can be used as accountability mechanisms. They have paved the way for what good practice in the support of early career academics (of different types) could look like, and an expectation of who it should be delivered by.
But where is the similar commitment for early career academic educators? Even if one disagrees with the idea of specific targets on publications or grants secured, they provide some degree of clarity over expectations.
In contrast, those in teaching roles face an ambiguous landscape in terms of what is considered success and, therefore, how to achieve it. The need for sector-wide expectations on support cannot come soon enough, underlined by the reality that teaching fellows in some institutions are placed on professional services contracts, in effect excluded from even being recognised as academic staff.
Universities must invest in and support early career academic educators in the same way they have committed to supporting early career researchers. We need to think about how to give career stability, inspire creativity and growth and create truly supportive environments for education-focused academics through more than disparate professional development activities or teaching fellowships.
While there is overlap in some areas between the professional needs of researchers and educators, there is also a need to reflect on needs that are specific to those academics whose main aim is the delivery of excellent teaching. We need to look at how we can best support educators to inspire technical excellence and prepare the next generation of graduates.
Robust conversations within and between universities around the role of early career academic educators and how we can be supported as teaching staff should be the starting point. But the expectations of these staff are uncontroversial: increased job security, clear communication and management of contracts and clear pathways for progression, particularly from temporary contracts to permanent ones, specifically before they are brought into any academic progression stream.
The sector, however, must go further. Line managers should be encouraged and rewarded for supporting those who seek to improve their technical and teaching skills. Departments should be asked to engage teaching-focused staff in research where possible to enrich teaching approaches and content and to integrate research findings and approaches into everyday teaching.
Schools and faculties should also ensure that contractual arrangements for teaching staff are stable and that precarity in employment is minimised. The creation of mentorship schemes, and school- and university-wide networks focused on innovation in teaching and assessment and teaching leadership positions should also be part of this concerted push to support early career academic educators, as should efforts to support the hiring and academic promotion of under-represented groups in the sector.
The education stream in academic career development needs to be established and recognised as a valuable resource in the same way as researchers have been supported.
Structures at all levels of academia must ensure that this core function of a university is never seen as a second-class activity and that teaching is viewed instead as an essential activity required to inspire the next generation of graduates.
Christine Cassar is a teaching fellow in global health at King’s College London.
Print headline: Young education scholars need UK-wide careers framework
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