Teaching-focused staff deserve to be celebrated for their contributions to REF results

The paperwork was done months ago, the impact statements carefully drafted and edited until they perfectly summarise the stellar work done by research teams across the country. Now the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) are out, and the cogs of the university PR machines are whirring with their self-congratulatory articles, tweets and social media posts. Behind the scenes emails are circulating around departmental and faculty mailing lists quoting REF positions and other vital statistics.

Reading these, you might think that it’s only research-focused academics whose work contributes to REF results. Occasionally there’s a mention of the army of research support staff. But there are some people who never have that spot in the limelight. They are the teaching and scholarship-focused lecturers, and all this world class research wouldn’t be possible without this often overlooked group of staff.

Teaching-focused lecturers go by many names: university teachers, teaching fellows, lecturer (education focused). Undergraduate education is the focus of their work and they often do the heavy lifting of teaching core modules to large classes in the first few years of degree programmes. These core education activities tend to carry large administrative burdens, from recording attendance to delivering different types of teaching activities, which are not always compatible with running research groups.

We tend to see teaching focused colleagues in charge of undergraduate laboratory education, putting in long shifts supervising novice chemists and convening their progress. After all, the PhD students that make up the bulk of the research groups currently being praised for their contributions to REF don’t arrive at university fully formed with the requisite knowledge and skills to do world class research. They need to be trained in both core theory and practical techniques, and much of that is done by teaching-focused staff.

Experts in education

Most universities worldwide have teaching-focused lecturers; in fact, I am struggling to name one higher education institution that doesn’t have them. Teaching colleagues are there in chemistry departments across the UK and Ireland, sometimes in small teams and sometimes working alone. When I was an undergraduate, teaching only contracts were something failed researchers were shunted into when their funding streams dried up. Nowadays things have improved somewhat. Teaching is a legitimate career path for well-qualified chemists whose interests are drawn towards this very human job. Some departments even have personal chairs and professors of chemical education. In others, teaching focused staff are on administrative rather than academic contracts, reducing their access to career progression and undermining their status.

Teaching and scholarship focused lecturers are experts in teaching and learning. They meet students at the level they arrive in their degree programmes, dynamically adapting to the needs of large, diverse cohorts. They read discipline-specific education journals, seeking the evidence to provide the most effective learning activities for their students. When Covid-19 closed our higher education institutions to face-to-face teaching at short notice, teaching lecturers blazed a trail in switching to remote delivery of all kinds of learning activities, from lectures to labs. That innovation continues as we transition away from Covid restrictions and into an era of blended learning.

Experts in research

Beyond this practice-focused innovation, many teaching colleagues are involved in research in chemistry education. However, they do this without the financial backing of Stem research councils, the workforce provided by PhD students or the kudos of pure science. For those chemistry undergraduates who know they’re not heading to a future in a lab, a project in chemistry education can help them develop those vital ‘soft’ skills that are desired by a range of graduate employers in the milkround. So even though we’re not researchers as far as our departmental REF submission is concerned, we are still providing research experiences for students.

Some people point to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), championed as the equivalent of REF but for teaching. Much like REF it aims to provide accountability, in this case to students for the financial and time investment involved in their studies. However it is much less well established, and has quite a negative undertone. TEF is basically a bit of a damp squib and probably not one we really want to reignite. Moreover the very existence of TEF, no matter how good it could be, just underlines the separation of teaching and research into two completely unrelated activities when in reality, they’re all part of the same jigsaw.

I often hear my teaching focused colleagues across higher education say that they are invisible, and as far as the REF goes we certainly are. But we’re not invisible to the hundreds of students we engage with each year. Perhaps we should be happy with that. But just once it might be nice if our contribution to facilitating our colleagues’ research workloads was publicly acknowledged.