By Marcia Devlin
University teaching appears to be back in fashion in Australia this year. A report, Taking university teaching seriously, was released this year by an independent think tank, just prior to the federal election. The report argues for a greater number of ‘teaching-focused’ academic staff across the higher education sector. The idea is that teaching-focused academics, as the name suggests, focus their time and effort primarily on teaching and related scholarship. The precise split of time between teaching preparation, practice and scholarship varies depending on the particulars of the appointment. This report followed another earlier in the year commissioned by the commonwealth Office for Learning and Teaching, Teaching-focused academic appointments in Australian universities. Both reports outline the reasons for restricting the growth of such appointments to date and the arguments for potentially increasing them.
Specialists of various kinds in the teaching space have gradually emerged and new specialists are continually emerging. Traditional so-called academic ‘content experts’ now work collaboratively with learning/educational designers, eLearning specialists, curriculum consultants, language and academic skills experts, library staff, work integrated learning experts, careers and employment staff, information technology staff, learning space designers and others to create and deliver university curriculum and learning environments and experiences.
The move to a greater number of teaching-focused academics may just reflect the related changes occurring in the university teaching space. Of course, there are other motivations for the growth of these positions. As the second report points out, attempts to improve a university’s research standing for international ranking purposes have led to widespread use of teaching-focused positions to remove research inactive staff from ‘the count’ of staff, the number of which affects the calculations for rankings.
The growth of online learning and teaching is having a particular impact on thinking about learning and teaching. The new government set up something called an Online Higher Education Working Group prior to their election with submissions due by March 2013. The group has not yet reported but with MOOC madness dissipating a little – it won’t cure cancer after all – universities have turned their attention to the potential of online options to help them compete for students in a demand-driven market. Moving successfully into this space requires staffing that doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional academic mould.
The university teacher’s role is being rethought. What also needs attention are reward and recognition mechanisms for university teaching. As both reports point out, the rewards in terms of promotion for academics are still primarily found in research performance. The major challenge, however, is in the relatively lower value that is placed on teaching in universities, as compared to that placed on research. Having undertaken, studied and supported both teaching and research in universities for more than two decades, I find it curious that one is so revered over the other when, undertaken properly and to the appropriate standard, both are equivalently reliant on intelligence, knowledge, skill and care.
Both reports point to the critical importance of the ways in which university leaders talk and act in relation to these matters. The choices leaders make about teaching can either raise its status or entrench its marginalisation.
Marcia Devlin is incoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. A version of this article first appeared in The Age newspaper.