Thursday, November 20, 2014

Benchmarking with the Sessional Staff Standards Framework

Greetings from a workshop on "Benchmarking with the Sessional Staff Standards Framework", presented by Marina Harvey, of Macquarie University. This is part of the BLASST Project, which has produced a Sessional Staff Standards Framework, BLASST Guide. and an accompanying interactive tool (B-BIT).

Sessional staff are casual, non-perminat university teachers (called "Hourly Paid Lecturers" or "HPL" in the UK). Marina cited the work by May, Peetz, and Strachan (2013) on the numbers of sessional staff in Australia, doing about 50% of the teaching. This is of great interest in the higher education system, with a fear that teaching is becoming "casualised", with full time tenured staff being replaced with those employed for a few hours at a time. The worry is that students will receive a lower quality education as a result, as these staff may not receive training or be involved in the activities of the university.

Teach Students to Teach

As part of the BLASST workshop we were asked to come up with initiatives to further sessional staff development. An initiative I suggested was for universities to offer students a course in teaching, as part of their degree. This could be an expanded version of the type of tutor training students normally receive. This could be aligned with the VET Training and Assessment curriculum, so students could obtain a qualification (especially where the university has a RTO associated with it).

As an example, the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) runs a CECS Teaching Quality Program (TQP). Tutors are paid to attend the training, as well as for tutoring. An alternative approach would be to offer students teacher education as part of their program. Students would undertake a semester of tutoring as part of their education. Students would not be paid for this, as it would be part of their education. However, as well as normal course credit, students could be awarded a vocational qualification through ANU College, allowing students to teach in Registered Training Organizations. Such an initiative would likely be cost neutral: the money saved by not paying the students would likely cover the increased cost of the more extensive education and certification.

Some sessional staff could be offered multi-year year contracts, so they maintain their access to university resources between teaching periods. These staff could also be offered a process to obtain the same teaching qualifications offered to students in their degrees, as part of this (most likely by Recognition of Prior Learning). As an example the staff member could have an e-portfolio which was suitable for submission for certification.

Professors Do Not Make the Best Teachers

Universities like to promote the image of the tenured full time professor who conducts research and then passes on their decades of wisdom to the students. There are some such people,  but researchers do not necessarily make good teachers. Advanced students make very good tutors for less advanced students. The design of courses also requires specialist skills which are not part of academic training.

Students undertaking a degree, even the highest level doctoral degrees, need to understand that they have little chance of a full time career in academia. Universities turn out many times as many PHDs as needed for academia. Most graduates will be working outside the university and can hope for, at best, a part time casual role at university. Casual staff in any field have to take responsibility for their own training and development, including paying the cost of courses themselves and doing the training on their own time.

While the Blasst Project has produced useful material, the emphasis on sessional staff is not useful. If standards for teaching at universities are required, these should apply to all staff, regardless of their employment status. To say that sessional staff must meet teaching standards, while permanent staff do not, makes little sense. The Blasst Project materials would work just as well with the word "sessional" changed to "teaching".

A Plan for Teaching in The Internet Age

The BLAST project seems to be using a pre-Internet paradigm, with the assumption that teaching will be undertaken on campus, with staff and students physically present at the same time on the campus. With university teaching transitioning to the on-line environment, academic thinking needs to get past this last century paradigm. Most teaching will be done with students and their teachers not physically on campus. My rule of thumb is that a typical student will need to spend about 20% of their time on campus (one day a week for a full time student). Arrangements for staff, including training and "meetings" need to take account that most of them will not be on campus much of the time.


May, R., Peetz, D., & Strachan, G. (2013). The casual academic workforce and labour market segmentation in Australia. Labour & Industry: a journal of the social and economic relations of work, 23(3), 258-275.

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