Doing academic careers differently

How do we support academic careers that specialise in excellent teaching? For Kate Black, the emphasis should be on consistency and transparency

Kate Black is a Professor of Management Education and Learning at Newcastle Business School.

Over the past decade, HESA data has consistently shown a growth in the number and proportion of academic staff on a “teaching” contract – focusing on teaching and scholarship rather than research.

The growth in numbers of academics on this pathway, and the way that the sector has come to rely on these academics can be attributed to many different factors. Perhaps most notably, the rise of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the increased importance given to student satisfaction measures within league tables suggest a renewed institutional focus on teaching quality. Alternatively, we could be seeing elements of institutional attempts in advance of REF submissions in order to reduce the numbers of “researchers” without outputs.

However, there is evidence that a generation of academics are re-evaluating their priorities and pursuing a more authentic career focused upon the vocation of education. Education-focused pathways are perhaps most prevalent within the business and management discipline, something which can be attributed to the growing demand for business and management programmes at undergraduate (including degree apprenticeships) and postgraduate levels, and the necessary staffing of these significant teaching hours.

What does a teaching career look like?

There is very limited agreement even within institutions, and certainly between them, as to what makes for an education-focused career. While many institutions have made more recent efforts to devise education-focused promotion criteria, promoting equivalency to the research-focused pathway has presented a significant challenge.

As a result, criteria for teaching routes typically remain poorly defined, adding to the confusion for those academics seeking promotion through their educational expertise and leadership. The challenge in defining individual institution or, indeed, sector-wide, criteria has been hampered by multiple factors, for instance: the lack of agreement on what constitutes scholarship for educators and whether this differs from that defined for researchers; how this scholarship might differ by discipline; the relationship between scholarship and pedagogic research; how the impact of this scholarship can be evaluated or measured where the criteria of externally-validated journal rankings cannot be readily applied.

Better understanding about what constitutes scholarship is not only important here – it has a broader significance. As our recent essay in British Journal of Management explains, robustly evidence-informed education is fundamental to supporting the development of ethical, sustainable and inclusive pedagogies to support learners, as future leaders, to invest in the more sustainable and moral behaviours and practices that are vital to addressing contemporary global challenges like climate change and environmental degradation.

Business scholarship

Since the early 2010s, the British Academy of Management, under its Management Knowledge and Education (MKE) portfolio, has focused on better understanding education-focused careers and the nature of education scholarship. To support capacity-building it has developed infrastructure to support a suite of education-focused development activities, headed-up by the flagship “education-focused professor” programme using Boyer’s scholarships of education, integration, discovery and application as a springboard, and the MKE SEEL model. This collaborative community of practice has supported the development of networks to encourage education innovation, as well as other forms of scholarship activity such as education evaluation activity.

A current MKE project is examining how business school deans (or equivalent) understand education scholarship, and the findings are illuminating. Perhaps most concerning is that over a decade on from “teaching-only” becoming widely established, there is still significant variance in how scholarship is understood – varying from the expectation of high-ranking pedagogic publications and grant income from such bodies as the QAA and AdvanceHE through to expectations merely of good classroom evaluations and more innovative classroom activity.

Impact beyond publication

This project has also illuminated how the deans understand what impact means for each of the key promotion stages of senior lecturer/assistant professor, reader/associate professor and professor. Equivalency for the conventional research pathway measure of “international” impact through 4* publications and external income typically assumes an educational impact beyond the applicants’ immediate context.

How impact beyond the immediate context is understood varies. For some deans extending to the wider university across disciplines would suffice, for some, this necessitates extending impact within the discipline through dissemination at discipline-specific conferences, while for others this criterion necessitates evidenced adoption of applicants’ education practice by other institutions or professional bodies, or the leadership of a national education forum, or the need for explicit international recognition. Such international recognition is t, for some, met by such awards as AdvanceHE’s National Teaching Fellow or Principal Fellowship (PFHEA) schemes, or by leadership of international education societies or organisations. The proportion of academic time for scholarship activity varies significantly, from 10 per cent through to 40 per cent according to the institution concerned, also has significant implications. How practical is it for an academic to lead an international society with a very small workload allowance for non-teaching activity?

The lack of definitions and widespread inconsistency presents challenges for academics on these education-focused pathways. It necessitates them understanding their own institution’s expectations and those of other institutions if they are to make successful career progress.

The lack of clear criteria for scholarship does offer some opportunities. Rather than needing to reach explicit criteria such as a minimum grant income, a minimum number of high-ranking journal publications and so on. education-focused academics typically have the opportunity to define the criteria for themselves – allowing them to craft a more authentic self and career. Being successful necessitates the education-focused academic to establish for themselves who, or what type of educator and educational leader, they want to be. They need to decide what they want to be known for, much as a researcher would, and to ensure that this golden thread imbues their personal narrative.

As the importance of education focused academics inevitably continues to grow, we can lament the challenges, lack of clarity, and lack of cross-institutional parity. But we can also build on the opportunities as we define our own impact and craft an authentic career for ourselves.

14 responses to “Doing academic careers differently

  1. “Rather than needing to reach explicit criteria such as a minimum grant income, a minimum number of high-ranking journal publications and so on. education-focused academics typically have the opportunity to define the criteria for themselves – allowing them to craft a more authentic self and career. ”

    Without wanting to be harsh or pessimistic, my experience is that what tends to happen is not colleagues being given flexibility to craft a career pathway, but rather having a research pathway inelegantly rewritten with the word ‘teaching’ thrown in every now and again. The only ways to senior recognition by institutions in teaching seem to be either the National Teaching Fellow route – a labour-intensive process rewarding on particular kind of definition of teaching excellence and basically amounting to a type of external bidding; or by securing grants for teaching-related research; i.e. this could just be rewarded as research.

    At a certain point – really past the second tier of promotion – it feels that the day-by-day duties of excellent teaching are basically seen as insignificant (excellent tutoring, lecturing, workshops etc) in favour of abstract leadership of projects and bidding, which again mostly means rewarding the skills already rewarded in research promotions, and will mean less direct impact of the colleague’s excellent teaching.

    1. I agree with your points Naysayer. There is certainly less clear sense of what real, meaningful ‘teaching excellence’ involves. Colleagues who are good at their day to day teaching and learning but not necessarily want to become managers feel really stuck with this career path, ending up moving side ways to different institutions. From my perspective, there is a lack of ownership at a collective level from the staff body to shape this career path. This is quite different to the development of research career, which seems more balanced between policy, institution and academic communities’ voices.

      1. I’d echo this up to a point – but I’d also say that *management itself* is not especially clearly rewarded in career pathways – in the sense that being an outstanding manager is not something that’s easily mapped onto a promotion application, compared with, for instance, research outputs and successful external bids. People who have adopted managerial responsibilities, often out of a commitment to the success of a team or institution, basically can only ‘easily’ move upward into more management, often in roles they’re not keen on, rather than having that contribution and skillset recognised by promotion to e.g. Assoc Prof or Prof, as would the accomplishments in the often rather non-central research activities of a university.

        What this leads to is a culture of promotion which rewards people who have maybe been slightly more cynical and selfish with their careers (and often via activities that have ultimately not really contributed that much to the University, especially if it is not research-intensive) than those who have been dedicated to the success across the board of the institution…

        1. oh yes indeed. i was once turned down for promotion with the feedback that i didn’t do enough outside of the institution and was just doing my roles, “albeit exceptionally well over a prolonged period”. When i pointed out that i would be better thought of by the university if i was mediocre at my roles but involved in something national that wouldn’t directly benefit the uni and definitely not the students, I was met with stony silence. I am now getting my own back having done this “define our own impact and craft an authentic career for ourselves” and now regularly get asked to take on activity normally asked of Professors because “you would be good at it and we need this done well” and say no on the grounds that I am not a professor – thereby managing to retain what, for me, is a good balance of student-facing activity, autonomy in roles i take on, ability to resist being absorbed into the corporate hive-mind and ability to preserve my own personal value set.

          1. Ha, ditto re having difficult tasks lobbed my way on the grounds of capability. I might also add here that recent examples at certain institutions show that a big funding bid might get you to Prof but it won’t necessarily keep you employed if the Uni decides that your subject isn’t popular enough. This is again a big problem I think – staff are, by this to my mind silly fixation on external funding = Prof, being encouraged away from the core things that an institution *does* – really this does need more consideration at senior levels. [It also means that it is WAY easier to get to Prof in certain disciplines where there’s a lot of funding available than others…]

          2. I agree. Indeed it could be argued that the truly authentic thing is to treat academia as a job not a career, i.e. not apply for promotion at all but just carry on with your research and teaching, as the HE equivalent of a good classroom teacher, and participate nationally while not leading anything much. The great advantage of this approach is that you can maintain your values. Of course it means you’ll have a lower salary than colleagues with fewer publications, but more of a knack for fundraising and talking institutional bureaucraticspeak (of either its teaching or research dialects). But the upper echelons of universities these days are such an alienating environment that avoiding engaging with them, and instead spending your working days teaching, may be the only way to retain some sense of what, long ago, you went into academia for in the first place.

    2. I think the question for me is what is scholarship maybe? I find the onus on research, grants etc in terms of outputs as very strange, especially when I think about the texts that I have found inspiring, none came from research as we now know it, and likely were written without any grants to support the work,
      despite presenting ideas which have lasted for eons.

      I wonder if some of the most famous writers in field I work in (mental health nursing) would have fared as well in the current climate of big grants and big impact journal publications. They all taught and wrote; it was not one or the other. Though I hope my assumption is wrong, it feels what is knowledge especially when thinking about mental health nursing care is being constrained by a few metrics currently, and I am not certain this has the mental health service users at the forefront in what impact is.

  2. I would agree with the points above. The distinction between the criteria for promotion on a Teaching pathway and on a Research pathway with a focus on pedagogy is blurred (if not non-existent ) for many research-dominated progression panels, and explains why there are so few promotions through the Teaching career pathway in many UK HEIs. Trying to shape/ craft your own criteria will not help convince a panel using a different set of criteria.

  3. Interestingly many/most Academic’s have NO ‘teaching’ qualifications at all, my technical team holds more teaching qualifications than the whole departments Academic cadre! And in some cases ‘teaching only’ contracts are used to off-load patently useless ‘researchers’ who have failed to produce results and are taking up lab space doing little or nothing and can’t secure any research funding.

    One Teaching Academic I’ve known for years who does have teaching qualifications regularly comments about just how poor other Academic’s pedagogical practice is, and their students lack of engagement, made worse year on year by the ‘spoon-feeding’ of the undergrad cohorts in school and college prior to attending University…

  4. Unfortunately PFHEA has nothing to do with excellent teaching. In fact you will find that almost everything to do with “excellent teaching” is more to do with administration. Why? Because it’s a thankless task that nobody wants to do.

  5. I laud the business group for at least trying to tackle the issue of how to promote colleagues on teaching and scholarship tracks. However I really do wish that institutions and the decision-makers within them would stop reaching for the trope that there is a lack of definition of “scholarship”. There is, in fact, a thirty year literature of the “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” with a very clear and evolving definition. The problem is that decision-makers do not want to accept what the definition is because a lack of definition gives them control over who they promote and who they prevent from being promoted. And they don’t want to accept the definition because it involves learning a new field which is too much of an ask for most people, and those that do can find themselves being ostracised.

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