Early career academic staff, social mobility and the student experience

By Michael Hill

Recently, at one of the universities I work at, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, I stimulated an online discussion with 30 early career academic staff (Assistant Professors and Research Fellows) who are taking a course in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education aligned with the Teaching Fellowship of the HEA/Advance HE.

The topic of the blog discussion was Current Issues in HE – connected to Value 4 of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) “Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice”.

After reading their contributions, I was struck by their interest and commitment to social justice, to the cause of social mobility and to improving the student experience. Topics raised included:

  • Decolonising the curriculum
  • The mental wellbeing of PhD students
  • The mental wellbeing of academic staff
  • The plight of international staff and students re the visa system and Brexit
  • The diversity of the profile of academic staff and the link to attracting a more diverse range of students to study at postgraduate level
  • Cultural differences in the way students learn
  • Encouraging postdoctoral students to teach without hindering career advancement opportunities
  • Differential attainment (achievement of distinctions) at Postgraduate level between BAME and White students, both home and international.

These staff are primarily researchers and teaching/supervision takes up approximately 10% of their time. They are dependent on research grants to fund their posts as they do not have tenure and yet here they were committed to improving their teaching skills alongside recognising issues impacting on the lives of staff and students.

But if I had not been working with these staff, I would never have known of their interest in the link between social mobility and higher education. I don’t believe their voices are heard or their contributions noted when universities are writing their Access and Participation Plans, nor do I see them at conferences when widening participation is being discussed. Nor do I read papers written by these staff on these issues in the recognised widening participation journals.

So my question to readers of this blog is:

“How can we attract early career academics into the debate on the role of higher education and its impact on social mobility?”

Perhaps one angle is to recognise their expertise in evaluation. At LSHTM, The Centre for Evaluation who works with many members of academic staff, describes its aims as follows:

“The Centre for Evaluation aims to improve the design and conduct of evaluations of complex public health interventions through the development, application and dissemination of rigorous methods, and facilitate the use of robust evidence to inform policy and practice decisions.” https://evaluation.lshtm.ac.uk/

It seems to me that one way of harnessing the interest and expertise of staff like the ones I have described is to invite then to advise on the monitoring and evaluation frameworks universities are developing in their work with the OfS. But we do not often use expertise that is present. In the past, one could argue that Schools of Education should have been more involved in partnership work with schools and colleges than they were. Let’s not repeat the same mistake again and let’s start to work across boundaries and include expertise from across our rich source of university staff.

So to repeat the question:

“How can we attract early career academics into the debate on the role of higher education and its impact on social mobility?”

Michael Hill

FACE Secretary

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