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

Leading education-focused career development: towards a common understanding of scholarship and its outputs

The UK HE sector continues to increase its reliance on teaching-focused roles with HESA data reporting 32% of overall academic staff employed on teaching-focused contracts in 2019/20 (HESA, 2021). We adopt the term education-focused to include the variation in career pathway nomenclature across institutions that align to the HESA teaching only category. Some examples include teaching-focused, education and scholarship, teaching and learning.

Unlike research career paths, a common sector approach to promotion for those on ‘teaching and scholarship’ tracks has not yet emerged, leading to variation in practice both at an institutional level and across UK HE. This has contributed to a sense of confusion for those who seek to progress their careers on such tracks. The concerns are increasingly recognised across the sector and emergent work in specific disciplinary areas, notably the UK Business School sector, is now starting to address education-focused career progression e.g. British Academy of Management (Anderson & Mallanaphy, 2020).

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