Beginning a Career in Higher Education

Oliver Marnet
School of Management and Business, University of Wales, Aberystwyth
Published February 2007

This essay is a reflection on starting a career in teaching economics in higher education, with an emphasis on the incentives and disincentives in promoting teaching quality.

1.

To be a lecturer in higher education has always been a challenge, especially at the start of one's career. However, a multitude of pressures have arisen over the past two decades which make this task significantly more onerous. Comparatively low pay is contrasted by long hours, increasing teaching loads, ever larger class and tutorial sizes, numerous layers of administrative duties, and an institutional obsession with world class publications and attendance of high quality conferences to benefit the school's RAE standing. Ironically, no reward is provided for good teaching. Quite the contrary: time spent on preparing for classes takes away from tasks which are crucial for one's career - crucial in order to keep one's job. There is no financial compensation for the continuous increase in workload experienced by this profession over the past 20 years, and there has not even been an increase in real pay for lecturers over that period. A general lack of respect for the profession perhaps contributes to a dismal career outlook.

As if the immense workload, time pressures, and at times contradictory goals were not enough, there are additional pressures imposed on beginning lecturers. Obligatory teacher's training (PGCTHE) is one of these, thrust upon lectures without any regard for time constraints and the constraints referred to in the previous paragraph. While the colleagues organizing and running the respective workshops cannot be faulted for their devotion and enthusiasm, one nevertheless has to be sceptical of the value of this exercise. Senior staff are usually exempt from this requirement and generally regard this exercise of being of very limited value. Our senior colleagues have good reasons for this opinion. The time taken up by this exercise takes resources away from crucial duties and obligations, and largely fails to improve the teaching experience which is its ostensible goal. Another reason for questioning the academic value of this exercise is that students are used as guinea pigs in teaching cycle experiments, for the sake of bulking up the required personal portfolio. Students are not being asked whether they wish to participate, nor is there any time to explain any potential value of such exercises to a class.

To summarize, new academic staff - teach ever larger numbers of students with the associated time requirements of office hours, emails, tutorials, course work, essay and exam marking, preparing courses and modules, publish or perish, and sacrifice time for questionable teaching qualifications. They do all that for a salary that has not changed in real terms in two decades, while housing prices - as an example - have quadrupled (or more) in real terms over the same period.(no wonder that new lecturers are not only at the bottom of the professional income group, effectively, but they have also been priced out of the better housing areas). It could be a sad testament to one's career choice that the same investment in a law or medical degree would have, on average, yielded a minimum of three to four times the income bestowed on lecturers, with much better career development opportunities.

2.

It is obvious that a combination of increasing workload without corresponding compensation and an institutional obsession with exercises of questionable academic value will have negative effects on academic staff motivation. One may expect that the learning experience for students can only suffer as a result of larger classes (especially tutorials), and overworked/de-motivated staff. It is a fact of present-day higher education in the UK that publication in quality journals is the main currency of value to a career, and that any investment of time in creating an enhanced teaching and learning experience for students can be highly detrimental to the personal and professional development of lecturers.

On top of this, many institutions fail to provide much in terms of benefits and support in addition to the salary. Frequently there is no support for housing, no private medical insurance (try finding an NHS dentist, for example), poor provision of on-campus medical services, and little assistance for parents of infants and young children.

This of course has implications for the retention of staff, in the sector as a whole and particularly at institutions which consistently fail to compete in terms of pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits. With the imposition of higher fees for students, competition amongst universities for students can only become greater. After all, as education has become an expensive good (there has always been a high opportunity cost of spending 3-4 years of one's life at a university - but the explicit cost is only just sinking in), students can be expected to begin to pay more attention to the quality of the service provided by various universities. Reputations will be made and lost, and some universities will face stark choices if they wish to survive as an independent institution. Indeed, some universities should perhaps not survive, which is the nature of competition.

The quality of teaching and support for academic development are major elements which determine the reputation for excellence of any university. At the moment, there are UK universities which woefully fail to provide an environment conducive to the provision of teaching excellence and professional development of their lecturers. Universities which continue to provide little or no support to their teaching staff other than the required minimum pay will increasingly struggle for their survival. Universities will face simultaneous pressures from: a) Students who decide that a particular institution does not provide value for money, and b) Increasingly high lecturer turnover, as both young and experienced staff will look for better opportunities elsewhere. While these opportunities may not necessarily pay much more (within the UK sector - while pay and benefits are significantly higher in certain overseas markets), they may at a minimum provide better support for academic development and/or a better benefit package.

Conclusion

It is a challenge to remain highly motivated as a lecturer in higher education devoted to providing quality teaching to students. Some universities, and at times the entire sector, would seem to expect lecturers to square the circle. Expecting world class publications and research output, while overloading academics with teaching and administrative duties, and offering a pay deal which is decades behind is self-defeating. This is even more so for those universities who are at the margin of quality and fail to provide significant non-pecuniary support.

Grade inflation will not do and cannot be an acceptable substitute for academic excellence of an institution. Not much of a solution is a policy of attracting ever higher numbers of overseas students at any cost and with scant regard for these students' qualifications and existing facilities. Such policies, while common, is evidence of short-term thinking which will further damage to the academic reputation of institutions. Competition in the provision of university degrees can only increase, and any long term survival will depend on the provision of quality and excellence, both in teaching and also in the provision of an environment conducive to the professional development of academic staff. Neither can be taken for granted, not will these arise through conducting tick-box exercises.

This essay may appear to be an overly bleak view of the state and prospects of prospective lecturers in higher education. This is not intended. Not all aspects of teaching are in a desperate state (and there is always the choice of moving to a better institution). One ray of hope is the excellent support by the Higher Education Academy. One cannot fault the wealth of information, resources, quality of workshops and training facilities, and the unwavering support provided by our colleagues who organize and maintain the various subject networks. This support is most valuable and a constant source of inspiration. I wish to expressly thank the staff at the Economics Network for their support and their devotion.

This is the first of two personal reflections on beginning a career in teaching in higher education. A second one will follow later in 2007.