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What’s Wrong With Academia: Part 1

By: , Posted on: October 25, 2018

Now, I love teaching in a way that many in academia do not, but I don’t think that the TEF (The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework) is about loving teaching. Neither does it do the thing it is supposed to, of making teaching more industrially relevant and less research centric, or I’d be solidly behind it.

The TEF is in my opinion too easy to game, and is about boxticking, rather than producing real outcomes, about giving students what they want rather than what they need, about managing a mass of mostly unwilling teachers rather than allowing the excellence of the willing ones to flourish.

That its specific measures are in many cases confounded by factors which are nothing to do with teaching quality is also a concern, but my focus in this series of posts will be on those things which make university lecturing such a miserable job. These are the things which cause university lecturers to be pulled in so many ways at once that I sympathize with the decision many of them make to focus on the one thing which can get you promoted away from some of the misery – research.

I skipped the bottom few rungs of the academic ladder, though I did a good stint on the lowest one of all- part-time hourly-paid lecturing. It was useful experience of teaching, and gave an insight into what academics really thought of teaching in two ways. Firstly, they seemed desperate to think of a reason to have me paid to deliver their lectures so they didn’t have to. Secondly, I was treated with less respect than the cleaners. These insights might be a lot less obvious to the PhD students who often fill the part-time hourly paid lecturer slots than they were to me, since they are often used to being taken advantage of, but I was a very experienced professional, no longer used to such treatment.

As a senior academic, it was my job to manage more junior ones. It quickly became clear that work allocation was unfair. Those with no love of teaching and (actual or perceived potential future) high research profiles got to duck out of admin and teaching with few questions asked. Those who had failed to live up to such potential got the jobs no one else wanted, and in some cases were managed out the door. There is no more such a thing as academic tenure than there is academic freedom.

If academic freedom means anything in the era of the TEF it is, perversely, the right to continue to teach as much research-based stuff as you like, but now you have to justify it with some tenuous link to industry. It’s not as though your students, fellow lecturers, or anyone involved in the TEF worked in industry, so that they were in a position to contradict your assertions about the practicality of your teaching.

Engineering academics commonly assert that it is the job of “industry” to teach actual engineering, because this is “technical level knowledge”, beneath their dignity to include in their courses. Davis, the founder of Chemical Engineering, was accused of teaching mere “commonplace knowhow” in his own era, and academics remain sniffy about real engineering knowledge to this day.

Furthermore, to the extent that university lecturers care about teaching at all, they consider themselves rather spiritual “educators”, not grubby, worldly “trainers”. Even those who do not really care sometimes use this as an excuse for their poor teaching.  Simply not caring is however sufficient cause for irremediable incompetence in any field.

I predict that as engineering academics are already highly skilled in grudgingly doing the absolute minimum possible to address the practicality requirements of the engineering institutions which accredit their courses, they will have no difficulty transferring these skills to gaming the TEF. Initial results seem to bear out my fears.


Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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