The rise of teaching-only academics

Opinion by Belinda Probert

In 1988, then-federal education minister John Dawkins almost doubled the number of Australian universities.

Dawkins did this by by merging colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology into a unified national higher education system. The new universities were now required to undertake research. Over the next two decades, their academic staff were strongly encouraged to undertake PhDs, develop research, and compete for research funding.

More recently, influential global university rankings – which depend overwhelmingly on research reputation – have made Australian universities even more focused on research performance at both the institutional and individual level.

To be a successful academic, you needed to be successful at research, or at least that’s what many academics were told.

But over the last three or four years, there has been a steady increase in the number of academic staff who are being employed mainly to teach, not for their research. While still only making up about 10% of the academic workforce, they are to be found in every kind of university including the research-intensive sandstones. In fact, only a handful of institutions have decided to avoid them.

Teaching-focused, sometimes called teaching-only, positions are being created for different reasons in different universities. These range from an explicit desire to raise the status of teaching and create teaching-focused career paths, to improving institutional research performance by transferring research-inactive academics into a different employment category. This tactic allows a university to appear more research intensive than it really is.

While few will admit directly to this motive, teaching-focused academics are also a means of increasing teaching ‘productivity’, allowing for greater teaching loads on some staff.

Whatever the particular motive, after years of research focus, many continue to doubt that you can have a good university career based on teaching, or that a teaching position will be given the same respect as a researcher. Teaching is still widely talked about as a kind of punishment for not being a competitive researcher.

Poor researchers are often transferred to teaching, but it’s hard to imagine an unsuccessful teacher being transferred to a more research-focused position. Even though there are plenty of poor teachers that can do damage to students' learning.

Financial pressures that have led to the widespread casualisation of university teaching have also made many academics wary of developments that might lead to the creation of another academic ‘underclass’.

It’s mainly in the science disciplines that the creation of teaching-focused positions seems to be able to meet apparently conflicting objectives. Many science faculties now have ‘Director of First Year teaching’ positions, for example. The goal is to raise the status of teaching to improve student learning and improve retention rates in chemistry, biology, maths or physics.

In making this an area of specialist focus, departmental budgets can be improved, and other academics can be released to spend more time winning research grants and publishing research papers.

The most enthusiastic teaching-focused academics in Australia appear to work in science departments where their love of teaching is being rewarded, and they are seen as contributing in a vital way to the overall strength and status of their discipline. The academics do well out of it, but the biggest winners here are the students.

The growth of teaching-focused appointments in Australia is part of an international trend in which traditional academic jobs are being unbundled into more specialised roles. These include educational designers, teachers of academic skills, and technical experts in online education. The main reasons for this unbundling are seen as technological innovation and the pressures created by mass participation in higher education.

For example, a MOOC (massive open online course) might have tens of thousands of students across the world, needing only one content developer (traditional, research-active academic) and armies of local tutors.

Government objectives around increasing participation rates without increasing government expenditure mean that lower cost providers are being encouraged into higher education. TAFE institutes and specialist private providers are already teaching many of our undergraduates, relying on teaching-focused staff with much lower cost structures.

What is needed in this competitive environment is greater clarity about what constitutes excellence in higher education teaching so that it can be both assured and rewarded. Some believe that a greater ‘professionalisation’ of university teaching is necessary in order to secure its status. Others see the issue as one of institutional leadership and strategic foresight.

Teaching-focused appointments can raise the status of teaching or continue its marginalisation. What happens next will depend on the strategy and values of senior management, and the extent to which these are reflected in the things that deans and heads of department do and say.

First published on The Conversation on 22 January 2014. 

Professor Belinda Probert was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at La Trobe University from 2008 to 2011.

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