Realigning the staff development offer to new academic career pathways

We are based in two different universities in the Midlands, each with its own distinct mission and history.  Our roles are substantially different, as are our professional backgrounds and life experiences.  Our paths might never have crossed had it not been for a spur of the moment blog (Sterling, 2022a).  We quickly discovered a shared interest in the need to create, support and celebrate flexible academic pathways – quite an odd thing on the face of it!

HESA’s broad categorisation of academic employment into teaching only, teaching and research, research only, and neither teaching nor research helps aggregate and simplify an extremely complex dataset.  While dealing with one challenge, however, it creates another.  The teaching/research binary erases in one fell swoop the visibility of richly varied learning-focused roles in a university.

The richly varied ways in which academics facilitate students’ (and others’) engagement in learning and knowledge creation and use have more recently begun to be recognised through redeveloped academic career frameworks.  Two recent blogs (Smith & Walker, 2021; Sterling, 2022b) highlight the wins and the caveats associated with this.  An Advance HE report (Bradley, 2021) emphasizes the expanse and nuance that have been achieved but also the development work that still needs to be carried out.

An institution’s staff development offer is fundamental to ensuring that academic career frameworks are lifted off the pages of that institution’s policy and procedure documents and implemented in ways that generate learning and growth for academic staff.  Development can also be fun – a point which is often neglected.  Learning and growth for academic staff translate into equally positive experiences and outcomes for students, for other stakeholders and for the regions and communities (local, national and global) to which staff, students and stakeholders belong.

The perspectives we share in this blog come from different but complementary standpoints.  Mark led the redevelopment of the academic career framework at the University of Birmingham.  The concept of citizenship underpins all pathways and is core to evidencing the impact of one’s contribution to the success of the university.  The three-part pathway structure decouples research from the REF and celebrates all forms of research as beneficial to the university and broader community.  There is flexibility within the pathways for academic staff to shape the focus of their roles.  There is also flexibility to move across the pathways, in recognition of the possibility that staff interests may evolve over time.

Lia has recently achieved promotion to Associate Professor on the Teaching & Scholarship pathway at Nottingham Trent University (Blaj-Ward, 2021).  Her progression was fully supported by the collaborative, cross-functional learning environment for staff at NTU.  A temporary secondment to a professional services position helped her bring new knowledge into her substantive academic role, enriching the core of her academic work, both student-facing and scholarship-oriented.  Cross-functional mentoring – formally structured or as the outcome of serendipitous encounters – has helped her appreciate more fully the rich ‘ecologies for learning and practice’ (Barnett & Jackson, 2020) in a university.

Staff need to thrive on redeveloped, flexible pathways and have the opportunity to ‘craft’ their role (Dutton & Wrzesniewski, 2020).  Different institutions need to interpret (embrace?) this differently – after all diversity is a strength.  With all the above in mind, we would like to pose a simple question: is it time for change at your institution?  If so, what are you going to do about it? (Okay, that was two questions, but we are academics after all!)

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.
Twitter: @sterling_mark

Lia Blaj-Ward is Associate Professor (Teaching & Scholarship) at Nottingham Trent University and incoming chair of the BALEAP Course Accreditation Scheme.
Twitter: @liablajward


Barnet, R., & Jackson, N. Eds. (2020). Ecologies for Learning and Practice: Emerging Ideas, Sightings, and Possibilities. Abingdon: Routledge.

Blaj-Ward, L. (2021). Impactful Teaching and Learning in the Slow Lane. Wonkhe

Bradley, S. (2021). Academic Career Progression: Rethinking Pathways. Advance HE

Dutton, J.E., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2020). What Job Crafting Looks Like. Harvard Business Review

Smith, S., & Walker, D. (2021). Leading Education-Focused Career Development: Towards a Common Understanding of Scholarship and its Outputs. SEDA

Sterling, M. (2022a). Revamping an Archaic Promotions Process and Career Structure. SEDA

Sterling, M. (2022b). The Importance of the Employee ‘Deal’. HEPI

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