The part-time academy?

It is now nearly 25 years since I first assumed academic management responsibilities. At the time, after the untimely death of my head of department in Trinity College Dublin, I became Acting Head of TCD’s business school. In that capacity I found myself interacting with a group of part-time staff who played a major role in some of the School’s programmes. The individuals concerned were business practitioners of one kind or another who delivered some of our teaching in a part-time capacity. Students loved them (mostly), because they brought with them direct knowledge of the actual business world and because they would be good later for helping them to network. They were valuable colleagues, but it would also have to be said that their involvement was limited due to their main professional responsibilities. In my subsequent roles (as a Dean and as a university president) I continued to engage professional part-timers in a variety of subject areas. Two that spring to mind were John Bruton, former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), and John Crown (a very prominent and outspoken consultant oncologist in Dublin).

More recently it has become a matter of comment about the higher education system in these islands that, to a much greater extent than those in other countries, it relies critically on full-time academic professionals, for whom an academic job was their first career choice. It has been suggested from time to time that universities would be more effective if a greater number of people moved between academic, business or other practice-based jobs and higher education. But assuming that the most likely major involvement by such people will be on a part-time basis, it it might also be asked whether an academy that increasingly relies on part-timers would become something rather different from what we now think it to be. If you consider that even academics who cannot right now find full-time jobs in universities for budgetary reasons may increasingly develop their teaching experience initially on a part-time basis, then you begin to see a higher education community that is fundamentally different and, necessarily, somewhat more detached.

So as not to be misunderstood,  am totally in support of engaging part-time faculty whose main work is in the outside world; they genuinely add an important dimension. But if they become numerically too dominant, other elements will be lost, including the idea of a community of scholars. I fear that the growth of part-timers at this time is being brought about for budgetary reasons – and from a pedagogical and scholarship point of view that’s not the best basis for such developments. As we consider what kind of institutions universities may be in a generation from now, we should perhaps reflect a little more about how part-time colleagues can  add significant value, and where we need to ensure that full-time academics are numerically strong enough to maintain a sense of dedicated scholarship.

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10 Comments on “The part-time academy?”

  1. Trich Says:

    You are a prolific writer Ferdinand. How are you experiencing Scotland?

    BTW, After Japan’s nuclear disaster, would you still want the Irish to consider nuclear power as an alternative?
    🙂

  2. Jilly Says:

    One of the problems of having too high a proportion of part-timers to full-timers (leaving aside for now the fact that the part-timers aren’t generally well-paid, have no pension-entitlements or possibility of career-development etc) is that they cannot be asked to take on any of the management or development roles within their department. A university department requires a considerable amount of over-sight, not just teaching or research. There needs to be constant communication between those teaching regarding the content of their modules, each module’s connection to other modules, and the progress/welfare of individual students. There also needs to be interaction between each department and other areas of the university, such as admissions, graduate studies, finance, HR, the access office etc.

    None of this can be performed by part-timers who are on campus for maybe 1 day a week and who are only paid to deliver each module they teach. This leaves all of that work to the ever-decreasing number of full-time academics, who therefore can find themselves in charge of more than one taught programme, all graduate students, mature student access and so on, all at the same time. This not only leaves them less time for teaching (thereby ironically increasing the need for part-timers, but also removing full-timers from contact with students), but leads to overload and confusion.

    • Perry Share Says:

      It is not the case, at least in the IoT sector, that fractional (as opposed to hourly paid) staff are not involved in non-teaching roles. In fact it is part of their pro rata contracts. Fractional staff can and do bring many of the benefits of involvement in the ‘real world’ that Ferdinand suggests. Anyone who regularly delivers teaching on a part-time basis on a repeated basis is entitled to seek a pro rata contract, under EU employment law.

      The use of practitioner/lecturer staff is widespread in such areas as medicine and the creative arts. For the latter area, there is a very interesting report on the situation in the UK (well English) HE sector in the Looking out report published by the Higher Education Academy.

  3. Maire Says:

    The concerns you express in your article are well founded, and Jilly is also spot-on in her concerns. My biggest worry would be more to do where this will bring academia. While some argue that all too often academics live in an ivory tower, untouched by the real world, we stand to lose a great deal if we no longer have scholars who can stand back from what is going on in the world and analyse it. Third-level education has become more and more about the workplace/market, even in the research it undertakes, as evidenced by the reduction in pure arts courses. But pure academia, learning for its own sake, is so vitally important in teaching people how to think for themselves, to become opinion formers. We need to be able to give our academics that time and space, because very often they are the ones who are key to changing society, because they have the luxury of that remove. Part-timers who bring that real-world experience with them are invaluable, particularly in the Institutes of Technology, but there has to be room for both. But a society driven by ‘the markets’ is never going to acknowledge that.

  4. Vincent Says:

    You have my very best wishes on your new position. The Highlands are quite lucky in having you.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    Just wish to mention the long established practice of hiring part time staff in Art colleges, the rationale behind this relates to the fact that such staff are practicing artists/curators, however at least in my experience so far, the overwhelming presence of part-time members of staff creates huge problems (already mentioned in previous comments) which add up to the already, occasionally schizophrenic, relationship that art colleges have with the universities they are part of..

    • Perry Share Says:

      An excellent recently released report from the UK – Looking out contains a very interesting analysis of this phenomenon in arts and other creative courses.

      It does note that in the UK, as in Ireland, significant numbers of formerly ‘part-time’ lecturers and tutors are now – through the operation of EU legislation related to part-time work – becoming redefined contractually as pro-rata or fractional staff. Such staff share the entitlements of full-time staff, but also the duties in relation to administration, research, student counselling &c.

  6. Dave Says:

    It strikes me that the key issue around part-timers is ‘what is the mutual purpose and value for the organisation and the individual?’The notion that part-time is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was never a compelling argument. Times have changed. When I first cut my teeth on workforce planning part-time was in the ‘non-core workforce’ box, under valued and with both lower benefits and might I say lower expectations too! It is not so long ago that I was in an organisation that considered part-time to = temporary and which had no notion of the unwitting risks they were operating under. Now of course part-time has many forms and dimensions and rightly in most modern organisations – including my own – are valued (I hope), paid equally pro rata but also reflecting purpose, value and market realities sometimes. What is certain in a modern outward looking environment is that we have to have room enough to value the extra contribution of ‘workplace currency’being brought into all aspects of learning and it is that learning need for the real world that should drive the balance.


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