Review: #EconTEAching Session 11: Careers in Higher Education Teaching, by Prof Cloda Jenkins (UCL)

Our eleventh EconTEAching seminar on December 2nd, 2020 focused on the important questions of how careers in economics teaching have developed in the Higher Education sector and what can be done to increase the profile of teaching track careers. Denise Hawkes (University of Greenwich and Chair RES Education Committee), Antonio Mele (Associate Professor (Teaching), LSE) and Darshak Patel (University of Kentucky) provided insightful comments on the opportunities for careers in economics education. They also discussed the challenges in the discipline for those who choose to devote a high proportion of their time and effort to the education of students. There were also many ideas from the panel and wider discussion on what needed to change to ensure that teaching was valued on a par with research in the economics discipline. The session live-stream can be found on the CTaLE YouTube channel.

Have we seen a change in the nature of economics education careers in the last ten years?

The panel noted that in UK Russell Group universities there had been a move towards more teaching-focused positions. In these institutions, teaching fellow roles were historically part-time and temporary, essentially a resource to undertake admin roles and deliver teaching that others were not available to do, or interested in doing. The roles were often filled by people waiting to find their ‘proper’ first role. In recent years, there has been a shift towards hiring teaching-focused staff into permanent roles with a career path that requires people to devote most of their time to student-facing education and support. These roles require teachers who are engaged, innovative and familiar with education pedagogy whilst remaining experts in the field of economics that they are teaching.

In other universities, in the UK and the US, it has been the case for many years that lecturers have developed their academics careers by focusing on teaching. If anything in these institutions the pressures have moved to increased requirements to spend more time away from teaching to do more research to gain tenure. There may be a middle ground emerging with more and more economics departments having academic staff with different specialities. There was a sense from the discussion that everyone, whatever their focus, was battling to get the balance right between research and teaching, at individual and Department level. This may reflect different incentives that do not align.

It was noted that the HEA Fellowship scheme and the growth of university educational development units have helped with the development of teaching careers in the UK. Increased focus on education at policy level, for example with the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), may also have had an impact. The growth of education-focused research conferences, such as the American Economics Association CTREE and the Economics Network DEE conferences, demonstrates the increased recognition of innovative practice and pedagogy research in economics education. Economics departments increasingly understand the need to engage students with innovative education offers and to hire energetic and passionate people to deliver.

Does the market for hiring teaching-focused roles work well?

The panel emphasised that those applying for teaching-focused roles should be very clear on what they are applying for and why. Someone primarily interested in a research role at an institution won’t necessarily fit the criteria for a teaching-focused hire and someone with teaching experience and passionate about spending more time on student-facing activities is unlikely to fit the mould for a research-focused career. Recognising what is on offer and how you match what is needed is important to get the right fit for individuals and institutions. There are people who switch from research-focused roles into teaching-focused roles, but it is difficult to switch from teaching-focused to research-focused roles. The switching costs are high, and the choice needs to be taken with confidence.

For a teaching-focused role the panel emphasised that you need to demonstrate passion for teaching, be energetic and engaging, be innovative in your approach to teaching delivery and curriculum design and show that you care about student learning and student well-being. You also need to demonstrate scholarship, keeping up with the education pedagogy literature and the economics literature in your field. As a question from the YouTube audience suggested, there can be a mix of applicants for these roles from recent PhD graduates to academics stuck in their research-track careers looking for other opportunities. You need to be prepared to compete for the roles.

It can be difficult to make the decision to embark on a teaching-focused career path. It remains the case that when studying for a PhD this option is not often widely advertised. Indeed, some may find that supervisors and other mentors warn against the option, potentially seeing it as a negative signal in the job market. It was suggested by the panel that supervisors should be encouraged to open as many doors as possible, not shut them, and that they should help students to find opportunities to explore what routes may suit them.

It is also the case that the skills required for excellent teaching, particularly innovation in teaching practice and design of courses, may be different to what is focused on in PhD programmes. This makes it quite daunting to go straight from a PhD into a responsible teaching-track post. More could be done through Graduate Schools to help prepare people for teaching, no matter what their career path, as it is core to any academic role in economics. Anyone potentially interested in this route was encouraged to develop the skills through on the job learning and by working closely with colleagues and wider networks (eg, by coming to EconTEAching seminars). Undertaking a mix of teaching roles, taking yourself out of your comfort zone, was also a good idea.

Contributors to the wider discussion noted that it would be helpful if hiring of teaching-focused staff was undertaken in a more streamlined and coordinated way, similar to what happens for research academics in the European and American job markets. Parity across the different specialities, for example with all posts advertised on AEA Joe or at a similar time of year may help the matching for all. Job ads could also be written in a more transparent and appealing way for these roles. It was noted that the different terminology used for teaching-focused roles across institutions in the UK, and across countries, made it less transparent what was being advertised.

How make teaching positions as prominent as research track positions?

Whilst the panel celebrated the changes that have been made in economics education careers in the last ten years, it was noted that more work needed to be done to improve the recognition or value placed on these roles. One panel member emphasised that the increased focus in the discipline on diversity will help, with teaching providing a more flexible option for excellent candidates with different career requirements. It remained the case, however, that teaching roles were less well paid in many institutions and that not all institutions had clear progression structures for this track.

The discussion in the seminar also emphasised that a lot depended on support of the leadership teams at Department and Institution level. Those on the teaching track in senior roles were encouraged to lead the charge in challenging any negative narrative around the choice to embark on a teaching-focused career path. Leaders need to open up roles in departments, faculties and at institutional level for those on the teaching-track, to enable them to grow in their discipline and their expertise as educators. Research on economics education pedagogy, including research with and about undergraduate students, needs to be welcomed at conferences. It is also important that the expertise of those on the teaching-track is recognised, and drawn on, when strategies are being developed on education. A number of those at the seminar expressed frustration at not being asked by colleagues about education pedagogy during the Covid crisis, despite this being just the time where their expertise and experience would have added real value.

One panel member emphasised that fees from undergraduate and postgraduate students are necessary to subsidise research, in economics and wider fields, in a university. More satisfied students will lead to more revenue. It was suggested that we collect the evidence on the financial value of the input of teaching-focused economists and emphasise it more. Departments need those passionate about teaching to sustain the income flows from students. It should be in everyone’s interest to value teaching-focused careers on a par with research-focused careers, and every hybrid that exists in the economics discipline.

Reflection on the session discussion

On October 1st, 2020 I become a Professor (Teaching) at UCL. The second of only two at UCL Economics. For me personally it a great achievement. For my Department and my CTaLE colleagues it was also an important milestone, sending the signal that effort and excellence in economics education, and wider citizenship to the university, is valuable and is rewarded. I would not have got to this point without the existence of an institutional structure, still in its infancy at UCL, that values education on a par with research, institutional citizenship, and public engagement.

The seminar reminded me that I am lucky that an institutional framework exists so that these discussions can happen in a transparent way. I am also forever grateful to work with such great colleagues in a Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics (CTaLE); although I do have to remind myself how much individual and collective effort it took for the Centre to move from idea to reality.

To have true parity of opportunity in our careers, the discipline needs to make more concerted and public efforts to recognise that in competitive undergraduate and postgraduate university markets excellence in education is at the heart of what most Departments need for their funding and, increasingly, reputation. A unified approach to careers in Economics Teaching, with job market coordination, and common approaches to contracting, provision of opportunities and promotion could provide the basis for a real alignment of teaching excellence and research excellence. Or indeed simply excellence in research-based education and education-based research.

Thanks to the panel members for Seminar 11, Chaired so well be Steffie Paredes-Fuentes (Warwick University), for reminding us of how far we have come and how together we can influence continued progress for those on a teaching-track in economics. Onwards and upwards for 2021 and beyond.

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