Valuing teaching

I spent last week in Adelaide for the Higher Education Research and Development Association of Australasia (HERDSA) conference. As far as Australian higher education conferences go, it is the largest, with a choice of seven parallel sessions. I was deep in decision fatigue, so stuck closely to the ‘academic work’ stream rather than move between sessions. This post is heavily condensed, patchy and subjective. Full program and abstracts from the conference are available. (This post includes embedded tweets so is best read on the website rather than through blog readers).

The conditions of casual academic staff and teaching-focussed academics were front and centre of discussions at HERDSA. Listening to findings on working conditions, the numbers of staff in insecure work, and the perceptions and experiences of teaching staff was heavy emotional work.

  • Scholarly Teaching Fellows: Drivers and (Early) Outcomes (Brown)
  • Scholarly Teaching: The Changing Composition of Work and Identity in Higher Education (Dados)
  • How much is this number worth? Representations of academic casualisation in Australian universities (Yasukawa)

Scholarly Teaching Fellows (STFs) are continuing Level A academics with a teaching focus (80% – 90% teaching workload). Based on data from interviews with 80 STFs and their managers, this project team are asking: Is STF likely to be a genuine career path for new academics? Are appointments reducing casualisation? How sustainable is STF workload and classification?

So far, despite some silver linings, the findings seem pretty grim:

Quote from STF research – “a subclass … a dead-end job” and to get out of it you have to “kill yourself” researching in your own time “to get back to normal” #herdsa18

— Agnes Bosanquet (@AgnesBosanquet) July 3, 2018

STF interviewee on fractional appointment after 20 years as a casual: “I feel very very lucky to have a permanent position … I always come back to how lucky I am” #herdsa18

— Agnes Bosanquet (@AgnesBosanquet) July 3, 2018

STFs speak: job security, but still treated as second class citizens, lack of career path. Almost EVERY STF was struggling with workload, especially imperative to research. Negative impact on health #herdsa18

— Agnes Bosanquet (@AgnesBosanquet) July 3, 2018

I have registered for their one-day conference in December in Sydney: The Future of Academic Work: a Deliberative Conference, and am looking forward to more in depth discussion of these findings

  • Undervalued teaching and its impact on academics who prioritise teaching (McCormack)

The theme of valuing teaching continued in Cathryn McCormack’s longitudinal ethnographic study of nine academics dedicated to teaching:

Great to hear voices of research participants @CMcCormack_SoTL Steve: “I consider becoming a master educator one of my life-long goals” #herdsa18

— Agnes Bosanquet (@AgnesBosanquet) July 3, 2018

Steve is 60% research and has been promoted to Level D. Sarah is Level A and is 60% teaching. Interesting comparison. McCormack asks: “How do we help Sarah to feel recognised and valued, and that her contribution is immensely important to the university?”

— Agnes Bosanquet (@AgnesBosanquet) July 3, 2018

This led to an amusing exchange on Twitter about the differential experiences of Steve and Sarah:

It’s the penis, mate. It’s all thanks to the penis.

— Cathy Rytmeister (@CateyR) July 3, 2018

  • Casual Teaching Staff – Identity Crisis and the uberification of academic work (Kelder)

The ‘uberification’ of academic work is widespread and encultured in universities. There is hope.

Kelder and colleagues have put together a Framework for ethical contracts for all the different types of casual employment at the University of Tasmania. This is good – really good – look (with apologies for the shadowy photo). #auscasuals #herdsa18

— Acka Hacka (@acahacker) July 4, 2018

There was affirmation of the value of care, optimism and hope in higher education – on the student panel, in keynotes and sessions and in conversations.

  • If we care about the quality of students’ learning then we must care about quality of teachers’ teaching (Chalmers)
  • Responding with optimism: developing academic leaders in times of change (Readman)
  • (Re-)Valuing on ‘Otherness’ and ‘Caring’ in Universities (Orrell)

This student panel was one of my favourite moments:

‘Higher education makes people kinder’. The benefit of a uni education from the perspective of the self-described ‘criminalised woman’ on the student panel at #herdsa18. I so want this to be true.— Kathryn Sutherland (@sutherka) July 4, 2018

The keynotes affirmed the importance optimism. In a presentation on the crisis of climate change, Tim Flannery asked: how can we give our students a sense of optimism and a feeling of hope? He suggested that the university should be a model for how we want the world to be.

Ronald Barnett: “we must maintain clear blue water between what Higher Education is and what a University does” “complaining about HE not being delivered is easy to do, the harder question to answer are where do we go from here? “ #herdsa18

— Simon Bedford (@chssbb) July 5, 2018

Barbara Grant encouraged hope for the future which is now. In a separate post I will reflect on her brilliant keynote A Thousand Tiny Universities, which rewards slow thinking. While I am mulling, here are some images from a chilly grey early morning walk along the River Torrens. Adelaide is half an hour behind Sydney time which gave me an early start to each day.

2 thoughts on “Valuing teaching

  1. We knew the STFs would be problematic but are they less so than extensive casualised work? I don’t know, but look forward to reading the researchers’ work. I know all of those people you cited and I’m very interested in their findings.

    The problem is that no-one can really see how this situation will change. The funnel from PhD to T&R academic is a tight one, and it’s closing down under the pressure from a combination of, on the supply side, sheer numbers entering it, a global market for researchers (along with increased global mobility) and on the demand side, highly contested resources, with an increasing proportion itself dependent on market forces as government support continues to shrink.

    Maybe what we have to do is work against the normative discourse of the “T&R academic”. The fact is that qualified people can’t get “normal” T&R jobs because there are just fewer of them in a mass HE sector (approaching “universal” with respect to age cohort participation). In essence, when we taught 5% of the cohort, we could afford to pay every teacher to research. Now that we teach upwards of 40% of the cohort, plus returning students doing coursework masters etc, we can’t afford that – or at least, governments (i.e. taxpayers) are not willing to fund it. Taxpayers aren’t willing to fund it directly either – or we could screw the students even further for fees (already among the highest in the OECD for public education).

    Maybe we need to adjust expectations (and bloody workloads) downwards to manage this and give people real, reasonable, continuing jobs instead of continuing the race to the bottom on casualisation.

    Too radical? Too provocative?

    The only other solution is revolution to throw out capitalism and the neoliberal (rapidly moving towards fascism) enforcement of it. If we’re not prepared to fight for your rights then sorry, we’ll just have to continue to watch them being eroded.


    • Thanks for commenting, Cathy. I too am interested in hearing more obthe researchers’ findings – and seeing what solutions they propose. In answer to your question, I think STF roles are differently problematic, rather than less problematic than extensive casualisation. But I am in favour of addressing the problems of a role that offers people working conditions such as leave entitlements, a higher rate of superannuation and opportunity for promotion!


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