Celebrating diversity and supporting progression in education-focused HE careers

Press/Media: Research


Arecent article on Wonkhe from Kate Black on “doing academic careers differently” is likely to have resonated with many education-focused readers from across academia in the UK and beyond. It certainly resonated with us, some of the founding members of the UK’s National Learning and Teaching Focused Network.

We are all learning and teaching focused academics, we have all made career choices focused on the vocation of education, but we are all extremely different – and in our diversity we represent the 36 per cent of UK academics who are learning and teaching focused. But it is precisely our difference and our diversity that makes us hard to classify and therefore hard to support in our career development.

For colleagues on a teaching and research contract there is a very standard and well understood trajectory. It doesn’t matter whether those colleagues do Archaeology or Zoology, or any subject in between, the progression from doctoral researcher to postdoctoral researcher then lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and professor, or whatever the equivalents of these roles are called at your institution, is fairly straightforward and is underpinned by a series of metrics understood across the academy – the holy trinity of Pounds, Publications and PhDs.

Yet for most education-focused colleagues across the UK, none of these things are contractually required or factored into workloads, and this can leave promotions panels, line managers, and education-focused colleagues themselves unclear about what they need to do in order to develop and progress, or support or assess another’s development. Black identifies a series of barriers, including sector-wide confusion about what education-focused roles constitute and how to measure and understand the impact of scholarship in a way that moves beyond REF-shaped metrics. A further challenge is a lack of time in which to achieve this work, exacerbated by there being no agreement as to what the “work” is, or the breadth and diversity that can or should be included.

Diversity in people and practice

Our work as a network, and a suite of broader literature and statistics, suggest there are more issues that also need consideration. For instance, when one considers education-focused colleagues, maybe what first springs to mind is people undertaking large teaching loads, and/or in teaching-related leadership roles. But many education-focused colleagues may also be dual professionals; working part of their time in industry or a clinical setting, and the rest in higher education. Or they may have come into their post directly from industry or another profession altogether, often from very senior non-academic roles, which profoundly informs their teaching and is the precise reason they were recruited.

Ultimately there is no one-size-fits-all model for a learning and teaching-focused academic, and thus there is no straightforward career model which we can all recognise and align to. Moreover, HESA statistics show that education-focused academics are more likely to identify as having one or more protected characteristics, and to be part-time or on fixed-term contracts, than colleagues on teaching and research contracts. This means that we are a minority group, comprised of people many of whom are already minoritised in UK academia.

A final and fundamental barrier is that the diversity of learning and teaching focused colleagues is, more often than not, framed as a problem, as a deficit – we do not have the uniformity of teaching and research colleagues’ career paths; we do not neatly fit. This permeates institutional practices and policies in every way, from promotions processes, to personal development reviews, to departmental attitudes to the time and resource provided for scholarship activities.

There are numerous implications. Learning and teaching-focused colleagues can be left feeling isolated and unsupported (e.g. Bessant & Robinson, 2019Smith and Walker 2024), which is compounded for those in minoritised groups who may already feel a lack of community and sense of belonging. Processes to support career development are patchy, and this has knock-on implications for the student experience, if those with specific expertise in teaching are not supported to develop.

The diversity of education-focused colleagues, however, is an enormous strength. Our diversity and our passion for teaching informs our educational expertise to lead, develop, and deliver initiatives that contribute positively to student experience, help universities to recruit more (and more diverse) students, close awarding gaps, teach and assess creatively, and enhance student inclusion. We contribute to institutional reputation, and often help to develop teaching excellence among our colleagues.

Ditching the deficit

Although some narratives suggest scholarship is misunderstood, there is an extensive body of literature on this subject, going back over thirty years, and it is education-focused colleagues who often have the greatest expertise in this. As Hulme notes in an essay on supporting career progression for education-focused individuals (part of this edited collection on the impact of integrated practioners in HE):

Leading effective educational change requires educational expertise … and educational expertise is more likely to be located in those who choose to study it than it is in traditional discipline-specific researchers. Thus education-focused academics are frequently ‘positive disruptors’.

Yet, despite the contribution they bring, education focused roles are sometimes invisible and often under-valued, and it is time the sector stepped up to recognise and redress this.

We suggest the first move has to be to ditch the deficit, and begin by recognising, celebrating and nurturing the diversity of learning and teaching focused staff.

Some essential actions to follow this through in policy and process include:

  1. Developing a clear sector and institutional understanding of what scholarship can mean in different contexts across organisations and developing policies that provide time and resource for it.
  2. Having clear promotions criteria, developed for these roles, and not adapted from teaching and research, and processes that are as clear for education-focused staff as they are for teaching and research colleagues, including representation of education-focused staff within promotions panels.
  3. Adjusting personal development review processes so they genuinely reflect the scope and nature of these roles, and are led by colleagues with the appropriate expertise and understanding of how to develop colleagues in these pathways. Consider how to ensure that learning and teaching focused colleagues can flourish in your context.
  4. Building varied and supportive networks for learning and teaching focused colleagues to share good practice and to see exemplars of career development.

We recognise that this is all much easier to say than to do, especially in the increasingly challenging and turbulent context higher education institutions find themselves in, but many of our own institutions are embarking on this journey, and indeed many of the authors here are leading on parts of this process.

Learning and teaching colleagues have a part to play when we, as Black argues, “define our own impact and craft an authentic career for ourselves”. But so do our institutions in making the policy and practice changes that will ensure greater equality and parity, and so does the wider HE sector. Forging a unified position across UK HE to champion and celebrate the diversity of learning and teaching focused colleagues will ultimately make a fundamental difference in better supporting this currently under-represented and under-supported group of academics, in turn in further enhancing our students’ experiences.

Period10 Apr 2024

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