Project proposal

Scholarly Teaching Fellows as a new category of employment in Australian universities: impacts and prospects for teaching and learning

Summary

By the end of 2017 universities in Australia will have created more than 800 positions for a new type of academic, the ‘Scholarly Teaching Fellow’ (STF). This project investigates the impact on teaching and learning of this ground-breaking development in the nature of academic work. It will consult widely with universities, employees and a range of stakeholders to develop concrete proposals on how STF positions may develop into the future.

The creation of STFs reflects a shift in priorities, both for universities and for staff as represented through the sector’s lead trade union, the NTEU. There is growing pressure from universities to promote teaching-intensive academic careers, mainly to strengthen teaching capacity in the context of rising enrolments. There is also new recognition from the NTEU that continuing teaching-intensive positions can offer a means of reducing academic casualisation. The resulting convergence in priorities has led to the creation of a new category of employment in the academic workforce.

STF positions are teaching-focused academic jobs available only to academics who have never held a continuing academic position, and who have worked for at least 12 months in an Australian university as a casual or a fixed-term contract academic. The positions are designed to offer a secure pathway for entry-level casual academics, and in some cases offer continuing academic status, with conversion or a right to apply for ‘integrated’ research-and­ teaching status after some years.

The main objective of this project is to initiate a sector-wide dialogue about the impact of these new STF positions, and how they may develop. It aims to do this in a staged way, beginning with a selected group of universities to undertake campus-based research, publishing findings and recommendations online as work-in-progress, organising inter­ institutional focus groups and then drawing together a national symposium to develop concrete proposals, with research findings published in a formal academic venue. I n this way the impact is initially directed at selected campuses, to move to inter-institutional and sector level.

 

Rationale

There have been two significant developments in academic work over the past two decades in Australia. First there is a growing disaggregation of teaching, research and administrative roles; and second there is a process of growing casualisation and reliance on fixed-term contracts in teaching and research, and a parallel growth in administrative responsibilities for continuing academics. The Scholarly Teaching Fellow role responds to these developments by offering a career path for casual teaching-only academics who currently deliver the bulk of face-to-face teaching in Australian universities. By creating greater stability in the employment status and responsibilities of teaching-only academics, the new STF positions hold the potential to greatly enhance learning and teaching in Higher Education. As such they are worthy of close attention.

There have been several OLT studies on casually-employed and sessional teaching-only academics as well as in relation to the changing academic workload, including the disaggregation of academic teaching, research and administration (Scoufis, 2006; Harvey, 2011; Hewitt et al, 2013, 2014; James et al 2013). Such reports point to the pressures for workforce renewal at a time of substantial change in academic roles, and recommend universities develop proactive initiatives to develop the required qualified staff. The ‘Good Practice Report’ on ‘Revitalising the Academic Workforce’ report’, for instance, that summarises OLT research in this area, recommends universities consider ‘providing attractive … careers that build the status of teaching in higher education’ (Southwell 2012:5). This is expressed in the current ‘Academic Workforce 2020’ OLT Project, which is specifically directed at creating a framework for the ‘professionalisation of academic teaching’ (James et al 2013). This project builds on these OLT studies, assessing the extent to which these pressures are being or can be addressed through STFs.

The project also speaks closely to workforce concerns raised by the OLT, in particular its 2013 discussion paper on teaching-focused positions (Probert 2013). The discussion paper argued there had been a renewed focus on teaching and learning in universities, driven by requirements under the 2011 Higher Education Standards Framework Act. Specifically, the Act requires that universities demonstrate ‘sustained scholarship that informs teaching and learning in all fields in which courses of study are offered’ (2.2.5). The legislation further stipulates that ‘academic staff are active in scholarship that informs their teaching’ (2.1.4). Probert reports that these requirements have seen some universities seeking to strengthen the recognition of scholarship in teaching. In the context of extensive teaching casualisation some universities have sought to appoint on-going teaching-focused academics, although this was found to be highly uneven and linked to a range of other drivers, not least cost concerns. This unevenness remains important in producing widely varying types of positions, from continuing to fixed term, from teaching-focused to scholarship-focused.

The 2013 paper ended by calling for: (i) ‘further research at the institutional level on innovative and strategic approaches to the use of teaching-focused appointments to improve teaching and learning’; (ii) ‘the sharing of this knowledge throughout the sector through national conferences and workshops which are not confined to those responsible for institutional level teaching and learning’; and (iii) the ‘monitoring of the growth of teaching­ focused appointments across the sector, including data on level, discipline and gender’. The introduction of STFs across the university sector indeed offers an important opportunity to investigate what is a new approach to the issue, to monitor such roles and to share findings.

 

Aims and objectives

STFs have the potential to significantly reorganise academic work. The project is designed to collect and analyse campus-based data, gathered from a range of universities in order to ensure the research holds relevance for all parts of the sector. It enables sector-wide deliberation, based on the evidence, on how STFs may be developed. As such, the project creates an important sector-wide perspective that would otherwise be unavailable.

The project is timely. STFs are being introduced from 2015, allowing the proposed research to be undertaken during the period that the first STFs are being created. This creates an important opportunity to evaluate the positions as they develop, offering a process of formative research that can directly contribute to sector practices, rather than emerge ‘after­ the-event’.

The primary aim of the project is to improve teaching and learning in Australian universities by creating an evidence-based consensus amongst university stakeholders for the development of STF positions. 

 

To achieve this a series of secondary aims are identified, as follows:

Aim 1: To investigate the cost and benefits of STFs for various stakeholders, and how they compare with other models, including the ‘integrated’ 40:40:20 model and the casual teaching-only model.

Aim 2: To identify the individual academic and organisational capabilities that are developed through the establishment of STF positions, such as pedagogical improvements or the scholarship of teaching, and how may they enhance the students’ learning experiences.

Aim 3: To determine how STF positions interact with and redefine other academic roles, for instance in terms of differences between scholarship and research, and the nexus between teaching and research.

Aim 4: To explore the extent to which STFs enable universities to offer career pathways capable of attracting sufficient numbers of qualified entry-level academics into the sector, in the context of large sector-wide renewal pressures.

Aim 5: To develop sector-wide ‘best practice’ for the development and support for STFs and present concrete proposals for how the STF positions may develop into the future.

 

These aims define a series of objectives for the project, namely:

Objective 1: To establish a collaboration between staff in four universities, across the range of university types in Australia, to undertake the program of research and deliberation.

Objective 2: To conduct in-depth sector-wide and campus-based policy research into academic workforce profile and the role of STFs.

Objective 3: To bring together stakeholders across universities to debate and develop research findings, and produce proposals for a sector-wide dialogue conference on the issue.

Objective 4: To disseminate research findings and policy recommendations from the dialogue conference through a project website, including with online publication of project reports.

 

Conceptual framework

The project is grounded in education policy studies, sociology and industrial relations, notably in concepts of precarity, re-skilling and professionalization (Brint 1996; Evans 2008; Standing 2014; Wilson 2004). It engages with a wide range of power sources, including normative claims, institutional structures and material power. Concepts are deployed to create an interpretative framework for understanding and explaining changes in the higher education workplace as a distinct ‘field’ of practice (Clegg 2012). Outcomes are seen as a product of putting claims and counter-claims in a wider structural context defined by higher education policies and practices. New developments directly reflect the interaction between such claims: the approach therefore allows for a ‘critical realist’ understanding of knowledge as both reflecting and contributing to the development of knowledges for social change (Clegg 2005).

The project addresses dynamics of reskilling and precarity in the context of a large increase in university enrolments and associated ‘massification’ of the teaching and learning process.

Reflecting expansion, academic work has undergone a dramatic re-composition (Lafferty and Fleming, 20 I 0). The division of labour in the university has substantially changed, producing a transformation in definitions of academic work and identity. There are strong pressures to disaggregate teaching, research and administration. But with disaggregation, and partly as a result of it, come new pressures for re-aggregation, specifically an imperative to re-embed academic teaching in scholarship.

Scholarship in this context is distinct from research. Research entails systematic investigation for new knowledge, which then reaches students through the research-teaching nexus; in contrast, scholarship centres on the process of studying an existing field of knowledge as the foundation for university education. Universities are specifically required to ensure that teaching and learning is grounded in scholarship, and arguably this creates an imperative to re-skill teaching. The project engages with this imperative, asking how it is reflected in new forms of academic work.

There are substantial possibilities as well as dangers in the recomposition of academic work, and a key contribution of the project is to provide strategic evidence-based reflection to inform responses. As reflected in the historical demise of ‘craft’ identity in favour of factmy work, the key danger is a deskilling of the sector, and related damage to the teaching and learning process (Bexley et al 2011). The transition to mass education, though, is double­ sided: as evidenced by the history of Fordism, the reconstitution of work brings new sites of skill-recognition. Indeed, in academia a key aspect may be the shift from relatively elite modes of professional labour, expressed in relatively closed forms of credentialising. In this respect, more disaggregated forms of academic labour are often implicitly defined against notions of academic privilege (with debate posed in quite populist terms).

The immediate structural impact of industrialisation in higher education, however, has not signalled a process of reskilling into new professional identities, but the reverse, namely a substantial increase in precarity. Rather than create new professional categories of continuing employment to cater for the new disaggregating workplace, the university sector has practiced disaggregation-by-default with its growing reliance on teaching-only casual academics and research-only fixed-term employees (Coates et al 2009a). This growing precarity in university teaching and research has dramatically deskilled academic work and created major risks for the sector. The legislative requirement that university teaching be embedded in scholarship is one major expression of this risk. Universities now face a new imperative to recognise and reward the skill level, in terms of the scholarship, that is required to deliver tertiary education.

One way for universities to respond is to seek to re-skill teaching casuals, introducing opportunities for casually-employed university teachers to engage with scholarship (Stefani 2011). In some universities ad hoc staff development support has been offered to enhance scholarly engagement for casual teaching staff, such as a ‘development fund’ to attend relevant academic conferences. There are clear limits to this approach: casually-employed academic teachers are never directly paid to advance their own scholarship, such as to maintain discipline currency (Kimber 2003).

This is where the significance of STFs comes into play. Continuing STFs can enable fuller recognition of the skills required for university teaching, in terms of scholarship, as they invariably incorporate workload for teaching development and teaching-related research, and hence, arguably, address both the problems of deskilling and precarity caused by teaching casualisation. Further, with increasing pressure from the VET sector, especially from ‘dual sector’ institutions and private providers, differentiation through the strengthened scholarship of teaching can have immediate reputational benefits.

A conceptual dilemma, though, arises from the simultaneous impact of STFs on the definition of academic work, and on the teaching-research-administration nexus. The disaggregation of academic roles into separated professionalised career profiles arguably signals a broader deskilling of academic work. Here, the professionalisation of academic teaching, with a defined career path embedded in scholarship, undermines the broader generic concept of academic work. Ironically, then, efforts at re-skilling and professionalising casualised teaching may enable the de-skilling of academic work more generally. As reflected in OLT discussion of this issue, this question is central to debates about teaching-focused roles and STFs (Probert 2013).

Conceptually, the conundrum can be seen as a levels-of-analysis problem, where solutions at one level of generality create potential problems at other levels. The question may then become which ‘level’ to prioritise. Embedding academic teaching in scholarship, to re­ professionionalise academic teaching, can further undermine the assumption that academic teaching must be grounded in research. Yet, prioritising the existing catch-all model of academic work may itself be self-defeating: in the context of growing casualisation, the defence of the prevailing academic model of work sees the continuing ‘integrated’ academics becoming a gradually-diminished proportion of the workforce, burdened with ever-heavier administrative responsibilities (Probe1i 2013).

Defence of the catch-all academic model may be a strong in-principle position, that in practice is increasingly sidestepped by ‘facts on the ground’. Seeking professionalised status, embedded in scholarship, for all aspects of academic work may offer a more effective means of reskilling academic teaching and thereby promoting teaching and learning in the sector.

STFs, from this perspective, can be interpreted conceptually as an attempt to reconcile the cross-pressures of precarity and professionalization. STFs are indeed explicitly designed to break the deadlock, and they rely on the mechanism of academic autonomy to achieve this. Embedded in the STF model is the concept of multiple academic ‘career pathways’, and of academic autonomy in choosing which pathway to take (Coates 2009b). The academic professional identity is thereby preserved in terms of options for taking-up teaching, research or administrative roles across the span of a career, rather than concurrently. It remains unclear whether this device delivers on expectations, hence the need to undertake research into this emerging field as it develops.

 

Project Outputs

The project comprises campus-based research into the impacts and possibilities for STFs. It produces a comparative working report centred on developing options for development. The working report will be published online, presented and developed in focus groups, and then brought to a national dialogue conference on the future of academic work. On this basis the project will prod uce a final report developing concrete proposals and criteria for the future development of STFs to enhance university teaching and learning. There will be four main outputs for this project, to be produced sequentially as follows:

  • Research Report: a comparison of the impacts and prospects of STFs across a range of universities. A scholarly report leading to possible scenarios, designed to stimulate debate on the issue.
  • Project website: providing online access to research data wherever possible, subject to confidentiality of informants, and serving as a contact-point for focus groups and the
  • Focus Groups: a series of cross-institutional dialogues with interview participants and other informants across a range of
  • National Symposium: a deliberative event on the future of academic work and STFs, drawing research participants and stakeholders together to discuss research findings and develop recommendations on
  • Final Report: summarising the research report, focus group outcomes and results of the national conference establishing a set of criteria to maximise the benefits of STFs. The report would outline the ways STFs can be of most benefit to teaching and learning, and offer concrete proposals for identifying ‘best practice’ models for STFs, including the support systems they may

Approach

The project draws together four participating universities: UTS, UNSW, Griffith University and the University of Canberra. These universities offer a representative sample across the range of university types in Australia: one ‘Australian Technology’ universities (UTS), one member of the ‘Group of Eight’ (UNSW), one ‘Innovative Research’ university (Griffith University), and one ‘New Generation’ university (University of Canberra) (the categorisation is derived from Moodie, 2012).

An in-depth investigation into the role of STFs will be conducted at these universities, and at other sites in order to gain a comprehensive account of the types of STF that are being introduced. At some universities STFs are offered as continuing positions with the possibility of conversion to ‘integrated ‘ status; at other sites STFs are offered as continuing positions with no conversion; and some sites offer fixed-term STFs. Choosing sites across the different types of STF will enable the project to verify experiences for each of the types, as well as to compare experiences across them.

The investigation and analysis will proceed as follows:

  • Policy Mapping and Site Selection: in the first instance the emergence of STFs across the sector will be mapped to determine where STFs are being created, how many, of what kind and in what disciplines. The mapping will also draw out contending debates and drivers at the sector-wide level, for change in the academic workforce profile, including career pathways, workloads and modes of employment. Equity concerns will figure prominently, especially in terms of access to career pathways for indigenous academics and for women. The mapping will further allow researchers to select additional sites for investigation as required, beyond the five institutions engaged with this
  • Local Contextualisation: There will be extensive background research undertaken into the chosen sites, in terms of the history of the universities concerned, their positioning in the sector, including in relation to VET, and their changing profile. Investigators will collect and summarise university-level documentation of policies and debates regarding academic work and staff development, for instance at Academic Board or Council level. This will include policies and initiatives, such as surveys relating to casual teaching staff, and wider projects and policies related to the university’s workforce planning and particular academic profile. The data will be analysed to draw out common themes as well as to account for the distinctiveness of the different types of universities involved in the study. The mapping and analysis at sector level especially relates to Aim 1 on costs and benefits, and Aim 4 on sector renewal.
  • Interviews: To gain an understanding of the impacts of STFs, in-depth interviews will be held at each site (up to 120 interviews overall). A range of players will be interviewed: senior university managers, academic leaders, education professionals, ‘integrated’ academics and recently appointed STFs, and a wider set of stakeholders including student representatives, representatives of the academic trade union and relevant government agencies. Interviews will be taped and transcribed, and will be semi-structured to maximise engagement and will organised around a series of common themes. These common themes will be derived from the ‘local contextualisation’ data, and will be informed by earlier work in the field undertaken by the investigators. There would be a particular focus on the relationship between a changing academic workforce profile and the teaching and learning process in terms of the student experience. Equity issues will also be addressed. These qualitative interview responses will be analysed using NVivo. This phase of the research particularly relates to Aim 2, in terms of capabilities, and Aim 3 in terms of the interaction with other forms of academic employment.
  • Site Analysis and Comparative Report: sector mapping, local context data and interview transcripts from each site will be analysed and compared. Common themes will be developed, as well as attention paid to contrasting developments. Analysis will develop grounded alternatives to stimulate debate. The research will be written-up in the form of a policy report, with clearly-defined findings and models for development. The report will seek to address all four Aims of the project, as well as wider equity
  • Policy dialogue and development of proposals: On the basis of sector­ wide and site-based data, analysis and comparison, the project will initiate a broad policy dialogue centred on the impact and development of STFs. The initial basis for this will be the comparative report, which will be summarised and used to prompt discussion. There will be two levels to this process:

(v.i) Inter-site Focus Groups: the Cls will convene several focus groups to discuss the findings of the comparative report. Building on local-level engagement, the focus groups will seek to create cross-campus discussions to highlight possibilities for shared policy development. The results of focus groups will be collated and integrated into the comparative report, offering a fmiher level of analysis.

(v.ii) National Dialogue on STFs: the project will culminate in a national symposium designed to be a deliberative forum on the future of academic work, with a focus on STFs. The symposium would aim to bring together a range of interviewees to share their perspectives as well as national-level policy-makers and a range of stakeholders. The conference will produce a final report on the Future of STFs.

 

Project Team

The project brings together six researchers, all of whom have conducted and published investigations into the casualisation of academic work in Australia. There are strong working relationships embedded in the team. All the Cls have collaborated with one or more of the team on research projects investigating casualisaton in universities, and how to address it.

Anne Junor was a lead CI on an ARC-funded project ‘Casual Professionals? New Work Time and Contractual Arrangements in the Education Industry’ (2001-04). James Goodman worked with Keiko Yasukawa and Tony Brown on a project investigating the casual teaching experience, undertaken 2006-2009. Kaye Broadbent and Glenda Strachan collaborated on an ARC-funded Linkage project ‘Gender and Employment Equity: Strategies for Australian Universities’, 2009-201 1, which produced the ‘Work and Careers in Australian Universities’ report. All these projects have had major impacts and led to refereed articles in journals such as Social Indicators Research, Labour & Industry, the Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, Economic and Labour Relations Review and the Journal of Industrial Relations. Indeed, the studies published by Junor, then by Goodman, Brown and Yasukawa, and by Broadbent and Strachan, were cumulative and explicitly built on each other’s work.

The work of these researchers has separately, and together, had a major impact on the debate about the relationship between modes of academic employment and the process of teaching and learning in Australian universities. Their investigations have, variously, informed the Federal government’s Bradley Review, the policies of sector-wide stakeholders, and the approaches taken by individual universities. Together the team can be credited with informing a major rethink of academic work in light of casualisation, and have thereby played a key role in enabling the emergence of the STF positions across the sector.m From this perspective it is particularly timely and appropriate that these same researchers should now be seeking to investigate the impact of STFs and to lead a sector-wide effort to reflect on best practice and draw up proposals for the future development for these positions.

 

References 

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