Teaching academic (TA) roles in Australian universities have risen three fold over the past decade, making up around 5% of the academic workforce – and further roll outs are expected. But new research suggests that these roles can be a negative career move for academics.
TA roles feature university teaching as the primary or only focus of an academic’s work. This includes teaching, marking, supervision and administration.
Many teaching academics have no allowance for research time in their role. This is different from traditional academic roles, which include 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service and leadership.
The rise of TA roles in Australia, Canada, the UK and US is driven by the rapid growth of student numbers in higher education, increased competition for work, and research focused university rankings.
Are there any benefits to this role?
Previous research does show there are benefits to both students and academics, which include:
Enhanced teaching quality and the student learning experience by providing dedicated and expert teachers.
The creation of diverse academic career pathways by providing an alternative to the traditional academic role.
More full-time positions in teaching through reducing the number of people employed on contracts.
Other studies, however, warn that TAs can be treated with less respect than their peers because prestige is traditionally associated with success in research.
How will this rise in TA roles impact on uni sector?
Four in five of Australia’s casual academics – those who are employed on a short-term basis and often paid hourly – have teaching-only contracts, and this is likely to rise. Over 20% of Australian academics are paid by the hour as casual staff.
TA staff are employed in at least 35 of Australia’s 42 universities, regardless of university rank or location.
As the most likely first position for new academics, TA roles attract many early career academics. The majority of TAs also tend to be women at lower academic levels, reflecting the wider marginalisation of women in higher education.
Can it really end your academic career?
Our research involved focus groups held at an Australian university. The research formed part of a university wide review held 12 months after TA roles were introduced. Participants included 115 academic staff employed in a range of roles.
We found that TA roles were perceived as a negative career move for academics transitioning from research roles, and a career limiting move for academics new to the sector. Research from the UK suggests that few promotions to senior positions are based on teaching excellence alone.
One head of department told the researchers that recommending a TA role to a potential early career staff member would be:
ending their career internationally … I have to be upfront and say, “if you see yourself ever moving on, you must have a research career”.
Without senior leadership support and the inclusion of TA roles in university workforce strategies, TA roles are likely to result in fewer promotions and fewer chances to transition into traditional academic roles.
The involuntary transfer of research academics into TA roles may also place teaching excellence at risk if the decision was based on poor research performance rather than on teaching expertise.
Address promotions criteria
Promotions criteria and policies need complete revision if they are to incorporate the TA role and career.
For example, the recognition of teaching excellence is paramount to career progression. As one TA commented:
How can I make a better teacher and how do I prove it?
Ironically, heavy teaching and administrative loads can limit access to professional development opportunities in research and teaching. As such, some TAs are less likely than their peers to develop teaching excellence.
TAs have little time for discipline-based research, which is often not part of their job descriptions. Many TAs disclosed that research:
… has to be conducted in your own time as a “hobby”.
Few TAs believed they would achieve a professorial position. As a mid-career academic explained,
The career path for TA is a dead end … you are a teaching slave and you are basically funding, subsidising, research that can be done by others.
Previous research has shown that universities have been relying on income from teaching to cover the shortfall of funding for research.
Also, few TAs in the study thought they would progress to teaching leadership roles. This relates to the entry point to academic positions, which is a PhD based on disciplinary research. Few TAs have been exposed to educational theory or research methods. One TA explained:
being an education specialist is not something we learned.
The role of rankings
TA positions are often introduced under the guise of increasing teaching excellence in universities, but they also concern research rankings.
University rankings are important because they shape public perceptions of the quality of universities. This has implications for recruiting students, researchers and funding.
Moving less research-active staff into teaching roles reduces the teaching commitments of other academics. This enables other academics to focus on research and make a greater contribution to research rankings. As one TA commented,
Why waste money on something like that when a “real” academic could be out there?
Establishing credible TA career paths
TAs need established and consistent career paths, strong institutional leadership, and professorial TA role models.
Universities can view TA roles as a direct benefit to research at no extra cost. But the success of this strategy depends on creating meaningful work opportunities and career paths for TAs.
Human resources play a critical role in designing and implementing change. The introduction of TA roles needs a “go-slow” approach so that policies and processes can keep up.
Universities need to recognise that some TAs will seek traditional academic roles in the future. Others will seek longer term TA roles with opportunities for career advancement. Both TA cohorts need consistent promotions criteria that are credible and legitimate.
TAs need access to professional learning. All higher education teachers need to engage in research within and about their discipline.
Higher education needs balanced national and international policy that overcomes the inferior status of teaching in ranking exercises. Without these supports, TA roles present a risk to individual and professional well being and the loss of experienced academics from the sector.
Authors: Dawn Bennett, Research Professor, Curtin University