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Multiple perspectives on Galway where the river joins the sea.

Multiple perspectives on Galway where the river joins the sea.

Once again academic colleagues (remember I am a mere clerk) are preparing their applications for a round of promotions from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer. A rare opportunity which has been suspended for many years as the ECF and its restrictions took hold. Now we have fierce competition for only a limited number of places and the selection criteria aim to cover all areas of academic practice, with the key to success (we are told) to demonstrate high performance across the board of research, teaching and ‘contribution’. Of course, by far the easiest of these to measure on paper (at least in many but not all subject disciplines) is research output, income and impact. To excel in teaching then, is not enough, partly because of the lack of clear consensus as to what that might mean and how it might be captured. The new round, to be fair, has improved significantly in terms of defining criteria and setting clear requirements, but it still avoids a number of fundamental questions.

Firstly, what should the nature of academic career progression actually be in contemporary universities and how do we design a system that captures the complexity of the rapidly changing external environment, funding regimes and ‘strategic priority areas’? Why do we still insist, in  many institutions, on using promoted posts as reward for past success rather than taking up a well defined set of key responsibilities? The same holds true for professorships and the expectation that amongst the number of promoted individuals some may volunteer (or be persuaded) to take up the mantle of departmental management, course leadership and many of the other undesirable but essential duties required of an effective institution. A related challenge is that of individualising rewards and recognition in an organisation that requires collective and collegial behaviours. When the internal ‘economic model’ is that of prestige and status relative to others and when ‘market value’  is measured in terms of comparisons within the disciplinary community (beyond the local institution) then we may well have an issue with sustainability, commitment and basic workload equity.

Teaching, as we commonly hear in many universities, has often become the necessary evil that drags aspirant researchers back, or at least the excuse that can be rolled out to explain lack of progress at annual appraisals and the like. How can you expect me to apply for grants when I have to give all those students feedback on their work? Give me a sabbatical, ‘buy me out’ and then you’ll get your Nature papers and definitive volumes.

The wise and experienced Head or Dean has heard it all before, of course. But why is it so difficult to actually place significant value on commitment to teaching (not just volume or hours clocked up) and curriculum, on the scholarship of teaching and learning? Is it that an institution, in this era of league tables, fears developing a reputation for actually being good at teaching? The implicit corollary of little significant research impact- is that what causes the senior managers angst?

For some, as Edward Acton tries to argue in his recent article in the Times Higher, perhaps the solution is that of ‘dual intensive’ – institutions which commit to both teaching and research and are therefore prepared to bite the bullet on the promotions and career path issues. Promotion by virtue of teaching excellence, though, is not on the basis simply of a high teaching load, nor on student satisfaction scores, but real, demonstrable achievement that is both scholarly and contributes to the wider development of teaching and learning within and beyond the institution and the discipline.

He makes the point also, that staff-student-ratios have a critical role, but this is a ‘real world’ challenge to institutions operating in an environment where the ‘unit of resource’ has been in steady freefall as the number of students has risen. In part, however, there may still be some latitude in prioritisation and allocation of internal resources, but key is the leadership and its messages (reinforced by demonstrable action) as to what is rewarded. In part also, is the confidence to say ‘this is the kind of institution we aspire to be because this is what we value’ rather than simply being another ‘also ran’ scrabbling for the leftovers down the well-trodden path the others have already taken.

Back to us in our own little corner of the world. Here, on the storm-battered, Atlantic edge, can we nurture a new institution that is dually or multiply ‘intensive’? Where an ethos of committed engagement is shared by students and staff working together to make something new, worthwhile and perhaps even, inspiring?

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