Teaching-focused academic appointments in Australian universities: recognition, specialisation, or stratification?

Learning and teaching Education Higher education Australia
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This report uses data on teaching-only appointments in Australian universities to describe their growth, their distribution by institution, and in those universities with significant numbers, their distribution by discipline and level.

Executive summary

Since 2009 there has been a consistent upward trend in the number of academic staff being reported to the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) as ‘teaching only’, reaching a total of 3 489 in 2012. Nineteen universities had a provision for teaching-focused appointments before the current round of enterprise bargaining began in 2012, and many more are likely to have such a provision by the time this round is completed. This is because both union and management in many universities are supporting this development, even if for rather different reasons.

The growth of teaching-focused appointments is part of an international trend that many see as inevitable, namely the unbundling of previous academic roles and increasing differentiation within the academic workforce. Among the agreed driving forces behind this unbundling are: the demand for much greater levels of participation in higher education (from mass to universal), the pressure to provide for lifelong learning opportunities, increased competition from private providers, and the radical potential of IT.

This report for the Office for Learning and Teaching uses DIISRTE data on teaching-only appointments in Australian universities to describe their growth, their distribution by institution, and in those universities with significant numbers, their distribution by discipline and level. The report uses a case study approach to identify the range of policies being used to shape the appointment and career opportunities of teaching-only staff, and discusses the likely impact on the quality of teaching and learning in different institutions, as well as the status of teaching in the wider academic culture.

Teaching or ‘education’ focused appointments are not concentrated in any particular university grouping, and have been introduced for a number of quite different and contradictory reasons. These range from an explicit desire to raise the status of teaching and develop teaching-focused career paths, to the more widespread desire to improve institutional research rankings by transferring research-inactive staff to a teaching-focused classification in order to reduce the research-active denominator. The recent growth in teaching-focused staff numbers has probably been, in general, more opportunistic than strategic.

Whatever the institutional motive, the creation of a separate category of teaching focused academic staff is occurring within a shared university culture that has increasingly privileged research over teaching over the last two decades, and in which there is widespread scepticism about the possibility of teaching focused careers and parity of esteem between these activities. The position descriptions and methods of appointment for teaching-focused academics vary widely between institutions, but the most common approach is for a process of application from existing teaching and research staff to a fixed term appointment to a teaching-focused role. It is generally viewed as a one-way street.

Within universities, there is a strong rhetorical resistance to the concept of ‘teaching-only’ roles, with an explicit insistence on the scholarly nature of university teaching (in line with the new Provider Registration Standards) and the importance of research. There is, however, relatively little clarity in the definition of what constitutes a scholarly approach. Similarly, some TAFE providers are wrestling with the scholarly requirements for those TAFE teachers responsible for higher-level undergraduate or postgraduate teaching, and with the relationship between teaching and research. The growth of teaching-focused positions in universities needs to be seen in the wider context of the growth of higher education teachers within TAFE and a range of private providers. The resolution of this question – what is the essence of higher education teaching – will have significant implications for the categorisation of different kinds of higher education providers in the future.

In the future it is widely expected that the application of IT in the development of such new approaches to course delivery as MOOCs – massive open online courses – will greatly stimulate the further unbundling of academic work and the differentiation of roles around teaching, research and other support activities.

The status of teaching-focused appointments in Australian universities, and the development of full career paths, are widely seen as dependent on greater agreement about what constitutes excellence in university teaching. There is an acknowledged danger that differentiation will, in fact, mean stratification. Some argue that the professionalisation of university teaching is necessary to establish 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 matters is the strategic focus and values of senior management, and the extent to which this is reflected in the things that deans and heads of department or heads of school do and say.

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