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Equality in Academic Promotion: providing equal opportunities for progress from Teaching Fellow to Professor

by Professor Gavin Brooks | Jan 31, 2023 | Governance & Policy, People & Culture

The contribution made by teaching staff to universities arguably has never been greater.

HESA 2021-22 data shows more than a third of all academic staff now have teaching-only contracts; the highest proportion ever. Income from student numbers is the major financial driver for many higher education institutions. There’s a significant and growing focus on student outcomes to determine league table positions. And in recent years government policy has rightly placed students at the heart of the system.

However, progression from Lecturer to Professor historically has been associated with success as a researcher. Until recently, progression opportunities beyond Senior/Principal Lecturer for academics who could demonstrate excellence in teaching and scholarship were limited.

Many institutions find it easier to understand and assess research-intensive criteria, as these are more familiar to colleagues who have followed a traditional academic career path.

Across the sector, universities have made progress in developing policies to incorporate teaching excellence as a criterion for promotion. Yet for many there still exists a gap between having such a policy in place and implementing it. All too often, teaching staff remain the junior partner to research, especially in some research-intensive institutions.

At the core of implementing a fair and equitable academic promotion process is agreeing useable criteria against which teaching can be assessed. Despite the obvious and visible impact teaching-only colleagues make to the student experience, identifying suitable criteria to measure their contribution is something that universities can find difficult.

In addition, often there can be challenges securing external referees’ reports for teaching-intensive applications as referees may feel that the institution is better placed to judge the teaching successes of a particular candidate.

However, alternative criteria for candidates seeking promotion based on their teaching excellence do exist. These include:

  • A clear demonstration of leadership in teaching (e.g. introduction of a new module or programme; membership/Chair of key teaching and learning committees)
  • Number of PhD students supervised
  • A demonstrable track record of excellent teaching practice that impacts on the student experience (e.g., positive student feedback, student recruitment and retention levels or
  • A record of good student progression, completion, and attainment)
  • Participation or leadership in strategic teaching initiatives
  • Pedagogic research, scholarship or income generation in teaching and learning e.g., refereed publications, presentations at national or international conferences and working with external collaborators, including professional bodies
  • Introduction of new pedagogies or innovative teaching methods
  • National Teaching Fellow and/or Senior or Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy helps confirm the appropriate level of institutional and any external impact(s) have been achieved.

The panel may also want to include comments from the Head of School and/or Department on the suitability of a particular candidate for promotion and to provide evidence of what normally should be expected to have been achieved by someone in the discipline at the relevant promotion point.

Ultimately, universities should be aiming to create a policy that represents a demonstrably fair and transparent way of assessing teaching excellence for all staff and gives parity to teaching alongside research and other promotion criteria.

Having led university-wide reviews on this topic for two universities, I am familiar with the challenges that institutions (and some colleagues) can face when introducing a teaching-intensive promotion pathway, especially to Professor. However, the positives far outweigh any negatives and I have witnessed improved morale, ambition and retention amongst teaching staff when the opportunity to be promoted exists and is clearly demonstrated.

The importance of student experience, retention, graduate outcomes and fees to universities doesn’t look set to decrease any time soon. As the contribution from teaching staff becomes ever more important in determining the success and sustainability of an institution, I hope and expect that more HE providers will demonstrate equal promotion opportunities for such staff in the near future.

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