quarta-feira, 25 de junho de 2014
It's time universities recognised the value of teaching experience instead of hiring based only on number of publications
After having slogged for three or four years (or seven if, like me, you were part-time and juggling childcare) with sleepless nights and too much caffeine, you stumble towards PhD completion and apply for a temporary teaching contract. Perhaps you think this is a natural first step to a permanent post in academia, the proverbial "foot in the door"? Well, you'd be wrong.
As I, and many others like me, are finding to our cost, no value is placed on teaching experience or ability in terms of either hiring or promotion. In fact, this teaching experience is without value if it's not accompanied by those all-important publications – the one and only measure for employment in higher education today, most notably among "old" universities.
As a recent article on these pages highlights, more than a third of the UK's total academic workforce is on temporary contracts. This rises to more than half when zero-hours teaching staff are included.
In the past three years I have applied for well over 30 posts, and have only been successful on two short-term teaching contracts, for which there was never any hope of permanence or even renewal.
The reason is simple – I have been told by people on hiring panels that how applications are sifted is simply by skipping straight to the publications list. And if the candidate does not have enough publications, it gets tossed aside, regardless of the other experience they might have on their CV. So having teaching experience doesn't hurt, but neither does it help.
The picture isn't any better across the Atlantic. An adjunct professor, as contractual or non-tenured academic staff in the US and Canada are often termed, named Margaret Vojtko died in Autumn 2013 penniless and nearly homeless. She had put in 25 years of contractual teaching contracts at Duquesne University, but received no severance or retirement benefits.
This, it would seem, is not exceptional – over three quarters of American university faculty are now adjunct professors, with prospects for full-time permanent posts rapidly diminishing. In Canada, it is estimated that around half of all university teaching is done by contractual academics.
The first concern here is in relation to teaching quality. Sometimes what has come to be known as the corporatisation of higher education certainly disincentivises investments in teaching or teaching quality, and my experience echoes this.
I have met some wonderful students with whom I might have nurtured a longer-term relationship and whose feedback would have been valuable in enhancing the teaching on the degree – but I have no incentive to invest in the department in this way.
Universities are increasingly using short-term contracts – ranging between eight and 11 months – to cover just the teaching period. This has the added benefit to the university that there is no contractual obligation to re-employ, making teaching staff the most vulnerable of all. I know of one case where this has happened consecutively over a period of 15 years. But this sort of temporary hiring represents significant short to medium-term cost-savings.
As higher education is under increasing funding pressure, moving academics on to temporary contracts makes good "business" sense, but also suggests they are cheap and disposable.
Part of the reason for this imbalance is that the standing of a university is increasingly based on its ranking in research assessments like the research excellence framework (REF), which only measures "impact" through the awarding of research income and publishing profile. Surely with the introduction of £9,000 student fees, effective, committed teaching needs also to be understood as a form of income generation?
Although, increasingly, teaching contract roles are specifying that they want candidates to be "research active", this activity is not really factored into the workload.
A full-time, permanent social science lecturer does not, on average, have more than four to six contact hours per semester, and has research time built into their contract.
In my first contract post, by contrast, the teaching was rearranged so that I taught an extra first-year course with 60 students in addition to what the member of staff I was covering would have taught. In terms of contact time – lectures and seminars – this meant anywhere from eight to 15 hours a week, which did not include preparation time, dissertation supervision, office hours, marking or invigilation.
Given limited work opportunities, many pursue these jobs in the hope of being kept on a more permanent basis. But in higher education, unlike in other industries or sectors, teaching has no value and could not be considered a "way in" to a more permanent post.
Permanent posts are now the reserve of candidates with long lists of publications or funding, whether or not they are good teachers. The vast majority of graduates are more likely to drift from one dead-end teaching contract to the next with no prospect of permanent employment and no other avenue for support while they try to get publications out.
It is a vicious circle, and a completely unfair one at that. Surely it is time universities recognised teaching as an important professional skill with its own hiring and promotion pathway.
This week's anonymous academic is a lecturer at a Russell Group university.