UNSW’s “overwhelming” move to teaching-focused jobs

By Alicia D’Arcy, Features Sub-Editor

UNSW has offered 150 staff teaching-focused positions, with just 170 staff expressing interest.

UNSW is aiming to have 25% of academic staff in education-focused roles by 2025 as part of its 2025 Vision.

A university spokesperson described this level of interest as an “overwhelming response”.

“The response is a clear indication of the cultural shift that is happening at UNSW to pursue excellence in both research and education,” they said.

UNSW currently has approximately 2,800 academic staff, meaning that this round of job offers constitutes 5% of the total academic staff.

Teaching-focused staff would be expected to maintain an 80% commitment to teaching activities, with 20% of time to be dedicated to other activities such as administrative work or – if they can find the time – research.

A UNSW website describes the policy as one that, “offers a new career path for academics who are talented and passionate teachers. Teaching capabilities across the University will be enhanced through a greater focus and sharing of pedagogical research and teaching innovation.”

Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs explained the rationale for this policy in a video.

“We’re going to create the opportunity for a cadre of outstanding educators to spend more time on their teaching,” he said.

“The demand for education is increasing exponentially. We need to elevate the importance of people who provide that sort of top-quality education through our education focused initiative.”

But Sarah Gregson, President of UNSW’s Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), is cautious about whether or not the switch is positive for staff.

“We can’t really know because they won’t say what the jobs will involve in terms of workload and career progression and so forth,” she said.

“The university has lots of glossy ways to describe the jobs, but even people interested in taking then up are worried they’ll become teaching slaves. The lack of response indicates that people want to be teaching and doing research.”

The university has thus far indicated that education focused academics will not be receiving formal support for staying up to date with the latest research.

“[A]ll Education Focused academics are expected to maintain current knowledge within their discipline. This may be achieved through a variety of means, provided academics are able to maintain an 80% commitment to teaching related activities,” a university spokesperson said.

The spokesperson then listed a number of activities that would require staff to go out of their way, such as “remaining involved as part of research teams” and “attending relevant conferences.”

The university also “hopes to continue to build informal networks and relationships across academics in Education Focused, Teaching & Research, and Research Focused roles.”

With regard to opportunities for career progression, the spokesperson told Tharunka that academics could still be promoted in line with the new Academic Promotions Policy and Procedures. Such promotions would be based upon achieving a certain amount of points across “the pillars of academic performance – Education, Research, and Social Engagement, Global Impact & Leadership”.

Belinda Probert, an Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University writing for The Conversation, expressed doubt about teaching focused roles for academic staff.

“Teaching is still widely talked about as a kind of punishment for not being a competitive researcher,” she wrote.

“While few will admit directly to this motive, teaching-focused academics are also a means of increasing teaching “productivity”, allowing for greater teaching loads on some staff.

“Financial pressures that have led to the widespread casualisation of university teaching have also made many academics wary of developments that might lead to the creation of another academic ‘underclass’.”

Encouraging passionate teachers to teach isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, students can only benefit if they are being taught by lecturers and tutors who have a passion for teaching.

However, it seems unrealistic to expect that 25% of all academics at UNSW love teaching to the exclusion of loving research.

This raises concerns that low performing researchers may be pressured into teaching roles, something that would harm the quality of teaching that students receive.

In addition, UNSW may find it difficult to attract industry professionals or younger academics with potential if there are fewer positions available that allow for the specific intellectual joy of research.

Education focused roles are not inherently problematic, however the university’s large target of 25% suggests that this policy’s underlying purpose is to increase profit, since teaching is much more immediately lucrative than research. If this is the case, then the university’s commercial imperative undermines the best interests of both students and staff.