Higher education cuts will be felt in the classroom, not the lab

Teaching-focused academics are often considered to be “lesser” academics. Shutterstock

In a recent Productivity Commission report, the bias of universities in favour of research over teaching was exposed.

The proposed higher education reform that would have seen A$380m cut from university funding was rejected by the Senate, but the word is that Education Minister Simon Birmingham has returned to the bunker to develop a new strategy. The most likely scenario is that vice-chancellors will need to cut costs, and we know where the axe will fall. Teaching-focused academics will be the hardest hit, and the cuts will be felt in the classroom rather than the research laboratory.

What is a teaching-focused academic?

The term teaching-focused academic has been used to include teaching-only academics, teaching-focused academics and teaching-intensive academics. The number of teaching-focused academics in Australia has increased from 755 in 2005 to 3696 in 2016. The number of teaching-focused academics is also increasing in the UK and Canada.


Read more: Performance funding is not the way to improve university teaching


In Australia, the rise of the teaching-focused academic is credited to universities seeking to increase their Excellence in Research (ERA) rankings. Poor performing teaching-research academics tend to become teaching-focused academics to maintain ERA rankings.

Teaching-focused academics are often considered to be “lesser” academics (Academicus minor). While evidence of research success is measured by volume (number of publications and research income), evidence of teaching scholarship is less quantifiable.

For example, 84% of academics consider teaching is important, but 29% believe teaching is rewarded in promotion. The data support their perception, with less than 10% of teaching-only academics above senior lecturer level, while more than 30% of teaching-research academics are above senior lecturer level.

Even when a teaching-focused academic is recognised for teaching excellence, it may not be acknowledged by their peers, or they may be subject to ridicule from other academics.

“Rank and sack” method shows bias against teaching-focused academics

Teaching-focused academics are more likely to be made redundant. Vice-chancellors tend to use the “rank and sack” method to protect researchers. Academics are ranked on the basis of research volume, and those individuals below a certain threshold are sacked.

A twist to the “rank and sack” method is to give the academic the option to become teaching-focused. An attitude of “anyone can teach” prevails. The departure of teaching-focused academics is felt in the classroom. These are the academics who keep up-to-date with technology, current trends in assessment practices and curriculum development.

University recruitment is focused more on research performance than teaching performance, to the detriment of teaching. In Australia, permanent research-only academics outnumber teaching-only academics four to one. Teaching-focused academics are further marginalised by casual employment. 82% are casual employees.

Over the last decade there has been a significant increase in casual staff, primarily to support teaching. When a tenured position becomes available, an academic with a track record in research is often appointed rather than a teaching-focused and, most likely, casual academic.

In Canada, universities hiring a research academic with a proven record rather than a popular teacher for a tenured position led to a petition from students. The popular teacher’s contract was extended.

Not renewing casual contracts is an easy fix for a manager who needs to cut costs. It isn’t so easy on the academic who relies on the income. Recently, an academic who had worked as a casual academic in Sydney for 15 years and was passed over for tenured positions committed suicide.

Cultural bias against teaching-focused academics is national

At a national level, there is further evidence that teaching is not valued at universities. The Australian Research Council (ARC) distributes much of the category one research funding to universities. It started in 1946. In contrast, the Australian government’s teaching and learning body started as the Carrick Institute in 2006, and was renamed Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT). The OLT was shut down in June 2016. What would be the reaction to dissolving the ARC?

In 1992 Ruth Neumann, after interviewing heads of department and university executive, revealed a cultural bias against teaching-focused academics. Knowledge of the discipline was valued more than teaching skills. The following quotes are from her report:

academics involved in research were described as being: alert, enthusiastic, excited, keen, curious, fresh, and more alive.

the teaching of those academics not involved in research was described as: repetitive, dull, unstimulating, unexciting, dry, sterile and stagnant.

This cultural bias against teaching-focused academics may not be so explicit, but statistics regarding casualisation, poor promotion prospects, redundancy priorities and the attitude to teaching awards indicate that very little has changed. This bias still exists.

Given this, it is easy to predict the outcome of any cuts to university funding. Teaching-focused academics will be sacrificed. Casual contracts for teaching-focused academics won’t be renewed. Tenured teaching-focused academics will be made redundant. The teaching load of academics who don’t have time to do research will be increased. But ERA rankings won’t be affected and the lights will still burn bright in university research laboratories around the country.