Revamping an archaic promotions process and career structure

Success, Strategy, Business, Solution

Smith and Walker’s (2021) blog on the 17th November chimed with a two year consultation we ran whilst developing the Birmingham Academic Career Framework. Before the pandemic was on anyone’s radar, we commenced the largest consultation project in the University’s history. Although we did not know that at the time! The driver behind this work was to develop a new career framework which:

  • was clear, transparent, equitable and inclusive;
  • supported the implicit and explicit values of the University; and
  • encompassed and celebrated what it means to be an academic at Birmingham.

In theory the concept was relatively simple.  However, the reality was far from plain sailing. 

We began with tackling what we thought would be the easiest of all of the elements – promotion.  We wanted to ensure decisions were more transparent and that it was easier for the diversity of work that academics undertake to be recognised.  We also knew that, like many institutions across the sector, it is citizenship that make the university run effectively.  Furthermore, these kind acts and willingness to support one another, can have a such a positive impact on the entire University.  With this in mind, we devised the following promotion thresholds and attributed points to each of them which varies with the promotion level:

  • citizenship;
  • pathway specialism; and
  • overall excellence 

Is it as simple as collecting points?  No!  Whilst we have indicated how points could be attributed to different activities, we have stressed the importance of making a positive contribution.  After all, is that not what universities are all about?

Can people skip thresholds if they are excellent? No! We want to celebrate not only excellence but the support that colleagues provide to others. To be clear, a highflying researcher who does not demonstrate appropriate citizenship will not be promoted – this was an interesting point to land at one of the UKs leading research intensive universities. 

We also took the opportunity to redefine our existing academic pathways and introduced new ones. We did not want colleagues undertaking valuable work but ending up in a career cul-de-sac.  

In the end, we developed three new career pathways: Education, Research and Education, Enterprise, Engagement and Impact.  For a long time, we debated naming the first pathway as Education and Scholarship.  However, we realised like Smith and Walker (2021), that there was no accepted universal definition of scholarship.  The more we tried to pin this term down, the more knots we ended up in.  In the end, our approach was to acknowledge that scholarship is research but in a different name.  In defining it this way, we acknowledged that those on the Education pathway frequently undertake research and that research represents a spectrum of activity. This helped to breakdown the stigma that can exists in some intuitions between those who have research explicitly in their terms and conditions and those that do not.  In the end, we felt that we ended up with a nice, simple solution to what quickly became a rather complex and emotive problem. 

However, the rest did not go as smoothly, but that is another story for another day!


Mark Sterling has been Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Staffing) at the University of Birmingham for the last three years.  Prior to this role, he has held a number of senior leadership roles at Birmingham.

LinkedIn:  Twitter: @sterling_mark

4 thoughts on “Revamping an archaic promotions process and career structure

  1. Very interesting and timely article; thank you (Mark Sterling); and I applaud the intention of preferment based on transparency, inclusion, linkage to a University’s values, and celebration of what it means to be an academic. I especially take to what Ian Hay (in ‘How to be an academic superhero’, 2018) terms being collegiate, that is a decent human being!

    But in Hay’s case, he rails against HEI weddedness to academics conducting cutting-edge highly-cited research; teaching courses that gain outstanding student satisfaction ratings; recruiting (more) students; launching research programmes and securing external funding and consultancy; leading a research team; making a significant contribution to human knowledge; serving a local community; and being an administrative paragon, whilst keeping a steady heart rate and remaining physically and mentally fit…..a superhero indeed! And as we know, superheroes are a a fiction!

    As a National Teaching Fellow and long-time practitioner and teacher in HE, I very much hope that Mark Sterling’s venture enables excellent teachers to seek and gain the higher echelons of academe e.g. Professorships. Blessed are the teachers, for their work impacts individuals today and tomorrow.

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  2. Interesting post, I welcome the effort on reform. And the emphasis on citizenship, which reminds me of the literature on being a ‘generous professor’ and Gary Rolfe’s idea of being collegiate which I hope has influenced my approach. Two questions:

    1) Many modern universities have a ‘teaching’ or ‘education’ promotion pathway. They often require published research into higher education as one of the criteria. For me, as a prof in education, this seems reasonable. But the emphasis of this (practitioner) research should be on impact on practice, rather than quality as defined by national research audit. My own work has focused in particular teacher and nurse educators based in universities, and I believe we can learn from their experiences and identities. So, does the new Birmingham University education pathway have a stance on research into higher education?

    2) The Birmingham University model maintains the well-established structure of pathways. But to what extent might pathways be, or become, a limiting structure? Over the career of a successful academic, as Etienne Wenger would say – their identity trajectory (1998), to what extent are they able to move from one pathway to another? For example, having established a body of research then becoming more focused on impact, consultancy and engagement? To some extent academics need to be subversive, to play the game of institutional requirements in pursuing their personal, but not selfish, missions (Boyd & Smith, 2014)

    Work on becoming a professional educator: https://realworldeducate.org/becoming-a-professional-educator-university-based-lecturers-in-teacher-and-nurse-education/

    including Boyd & Smith (2014) The Contemporary Academic

    Click to access Boyd%20Smith%20the%20contemporary%20academic%202014.pdf

    BERA Blog ‘Being Subversive’ informed by Gary Rolfe’s thinking: https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/being-a-subversive-teacher-educator

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  3. Pingback: Realigning the staff development offer to new academic career pathways | thesedablog

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