The Character of Academic Teaching Staff

Filling Blackboards by elprofeabra. Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND
“Filling Blackboards” by elprofeabra. Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

It’s been a while since I have written anything about my Doctorate in Education (EdD) work. I’m going to leave that particular post until next week after I have had my meeting with my supervisors. I do, however, like to write about something that is related to it.

To recap, my research will focus around the professional learning of the “whole” academic. By “whole”, I am talking about those other dimensions, besides teaching, that forms and shapes an academic’s identity, such as research, pastoral care, public engagement, knowledge exchange, and administration, etc.

About The Survey

I have just finished reading The 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey (Buckley, Soilemetzidis & Hillman, 2015) jointly published by Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA). I am particularly interested in section 5.3 entitled: “The importance of different characteristics of teaching staff”. It is the first time, since the survey began in 2006, that questions concerning on how much emphasis students place upon their tutors being “trained to teach” and which of those “academic” characteristics that students value the most of their tutors have been asked.

The survey draws upon the membership of YouthSight‘s “Student Panel” which currently (as of 13th June 2015) counts on 60, 873 members. The survey received a total of 15,129 responses, which roughly equates to 25% of the potential sample population.

As I have already mentioned, I am interested in section 5.3, particularly if you look at the findings through the prism of professional learning. Whilst there is no agreed formal definition of professional learning, it could be conceived as:

 …those relevant individual or collaborative opportunities, encounters or experiences that promote enhanced skills, knowledge, capabilities and practices that will enable an academic to meet present and future organisational objectives and is situated within their own career development.

The Survey’s findings

The questionnaire asked the students to rank the importance of three different characteristics relating to their tutors. These were:

  1. whether their tutor had received training in how to teach;
  2. whether they are currently active researchers;
  3. whether they had expertise in their professional or industrial field.

It paints an interesting picture on students perceptions of what they think are important characteristics that their tutors should possess. As you can see from Figure 1 below, research activity is seen as the least important quality that students are interested in. Depending on your institutional focus and ethos, for most academics, research engagement is their prime consideration.

Figure 1: How important to you are the following characteristics of teaching staff? (Buckley, Soilematzidis & Hillman, 2015:30)
Figure 1: How important to you are the following characteristics of teaching staff? (Buckley, Soilematzidis & Hillman, 2015:30)

The findings are not quite as clear cut as that. Depending on which institutional group your university belongs to (i.e. Russell Group, the former 1994 Group, University Alliance, Million+, Guild HE and UKADIA) will depend where the focus of the students’ perceptions lie. For example, my institution belongs to the Million+ group of universities. Within this group are 1,444 respondents, 54% of them felt that there tutors must possess relevant industry or professional expertise; followed by 30% of the students felt that there tutors have received appropriate training to teach; and finally, 16% who placed importance on their tutor being research active.

My institution is predominately aligned towards the public sector service (e.g. nursing, teaching, policing, law) and have a number of vocational based degrees (e.g. business, accountancy, etc.), so it is easy to see why students might feel that way inclined.

By contrast, the Russell Group, which received 3,992 respondents, has a different take: 49% of the students felt that it was important that their tutors were trained to teach; followed by 28% who looked for professional or industrial experience; with 23% of the respondents wanting their tutors to be research active.

Looking at the findings from the point of view of the different subject disciplines places a more nuanced slant on the three characteristics of academic teaching staff. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects place a considerably high premium over the ability to teach to that of being research active. The vocational subjects (e.g. education, health, agriculture, architecture) place more emphasis on the tutor have the appropriate and relevant professional and/or industrial experience. The only subjects where research is not ranked third is Physical Sciences (26%) and Historical & Philosophical Studies (35%).

The impact upon professional learning?

The report (Buckley, Soilemetzidis & Hillman, 2015:32) makes reference to a curious line in the Conservative Party’s manifesto:

…we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality (Conservative Party, 2015:35)

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) are required to collect, analyse and disseminate a range of information about higher education (HE) in the United Kingdom (UK). One such piece of information is the number of “qualified teachers” teaching at the university (HESA, 2012). There are a number of ways a university can evidence this: an academic has gained an accredited teaching qualification to teach in higher education , e.g. a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) or its’ equivalent; or has gained a Fellowship at the Higher Education Academy – this is a “once only” application.

This “framework” proposed by the Conservative Party (currently the UK Government) is highly suggestive of more forms of measurements that can be added to league tables and the Key Information Set (KIS), providing prospective students and their parents more information about the quality of education that they can expect at a UK university.

Universities may respond by developing “two tribes” of academics (Becher & Trowler, 2001): those who do research and those who just teach. This is already the norm in some UK institutions. Where resources and funding may be a little scarce, other universities may adopt a more “research-informed”, “research-involved”, or “research-led” forms of teaching, bringing it closer to a Newmanian (Newman, 2008, [1852]) or a Humboldtian (von Humboldt, 1970, [1810]) vision of higher education.

One begins to wonder how much agency academics will have over their own professional learning. Some questions that are already kicking in my head include:

  • Will the balance tip more towards organisational needs and objectives rather than career development?
  • Will the role of staff development and educational professional development (EPD) units become more amplified towards “better teaching”?
  • What kind of data will be monitored and collected around “teaching quality”?
  • Will there be a teaching equivalent to the Research Excellence Framework (REF)?
  • Will the HEA adopt a more SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) like model whereby “individuals holding a Fellowship are required to engage in a regular CPD process in order to remain ‘in good standing'”?

It seems to me that my proposed research study has come at a very important and fortuitous time.


Becher, T. & Trowler, P.R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines. 2nd Edition. Buckingham, England: SRHE & Open University Press.

Buckley, A., Soilemetzidis, I. & Hillman, N. (2015). The 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey. Oxford, England: The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 13.6.2015].

Collini, S. (2012). What Are Universities For? London, England: Penguin Books.

Conservative Party. (2015). Strong Leadership: A Clear Economic Plan. A Brighter More Secure Future. The Conservative Party Manifesto 2015. London, England: The Conservative Party. Available at: [Accessed 13.6.2015].

Grove, J. (2015). “Student survey rates teaching qualifications above research activity”. Times Higher Education, 4.6.2015. Available at: [Accessed 6.6.2015].

Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). (2012). Staff Record 2012/13: All Fields – Academic Teaching Qualification. Available at:,com_studrec/task,show_file/Itemid,233/mnl,12025/href,a%5E_%5Eactchqual.html/ [Accessed 13.6.2015].

Newman, J.H. (2008, [1852]). The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin. London, England: Longmans, Green, and Co. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 29.4.2015].

von Humboldt, W. (1970, [1810]). “On the spirit and the organizational framework of intellectual institutions in Berlin, in University reform in Germany”. Minerva, 8, pp. 242-250. Available at: [Accessed 7.2.2015].

2 thoughts on “The Character of Academic Teaching Staff

  1. Really Interested in your research, Wayne. I am also doing an EdD and am interested in academic professional development discourses in HE. My research has led me to some angles on academic and professional identity and I am currently exploring the impact of research informed teaching on the HE student experience.

    1. Sounds like there could be some synergies between your research and mine. I should say that I need to get pass the ethics stage before any actual data gathering is done. But I am interested in the tools and objects that academics use, either consciously or unconsciously, the spaces that they occupy, by choice, by circumstance or otherwise, and the decisions they have to make about which pieces of knowledge they should be devoting their time to, by choice or other pressures, and whether they have any sense of control over the direction their professional learning takes. Of course, they could choose not to engage with any forms of professional learning or may even perceive some of professional learning, like conferences say, as not being a professional learning ‘thing’.

      I would be interested to learn a little more about your research and what your findings, however tentative, are producing. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment 🙂

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