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Technicians: Fellowship as a stepping stone to academia

07 Dec 2018 | Tim Savage Tim Savage works as an Academic Development Planning manager at the University for the Creative Arts and is also an HEA Senior Fellow. Here he talks his experience of managing a high-performing technical team delivering practice-based arts teaching and the value of Fellowships.

The first round of Technician Commitment self-assessment documents can now be seen on signatory institutional websites.

This publically demonstrates an institution's commitment to the development of technicians and recognition of their contribution to learning and teaching, as well as research. Technicians are so important to student learning in higher education in so many subjects: from science to creative arts, architecture to computing. 

So how can they gain recognition for this? Some Technicians have access to Postgraduate Certificates in Learning and Teaching or similar, such as technicians at University of Nottingham, others will go for Science Council recognition through RSciTech.

Advance HE's HEA Fellowship is another means of recognition for their contribution to learning and teaching.  They can apply for an appropriate category depending on experience.  Some Technician Commitment signatory institutions, such as York St John University, are actively promoting HEA Fellowships for their technician community. Consequently, technicians are elevating their pedagogies, delivering highest quality teaching and gaining AFHEA and FHEA at an increasing rate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as this important group of educators upskill and become qualified as teachers it is increasingly common for them to transition their careers into academia.

As manager of technicians myself I have experienced this phenomenon first hand. Nine technicians from my own team have moved into academic roles in the last four years. Two of them are now course leaders running their own academic teams. This professional migration coincides with a sharp rise in fellowship. In 2014 just 25% of my team were fellows; by 2017 88% of my staff either had a fellowship or were working towards it. Indeed, this focus and engagement with pedagogic development was recognised in the 2017 Papin Awards (Best Technician Team in UK HE) and contributed to UCA’s (Modern University of the Year 2018 and top ranked Specialist Arts University for Graduate Employment.) drive to become the first specialist arts institution to sign up to The Technician Commitment.

Of course, overlaps between technical and academic realms within HE are nothing new. The 1997 Dearing report identified the importance of technicians noting that distinctions with academic staff were becoming ‘increasingly blurred’. A decade later Celia Whitchurch (an essential reference for anyone researching the careers of non-academic staff) described a theoretical ‘Third Space’ located between the traditional hierarchical binary of academic and non-academic camps. Alison Shreeve’s recent work describes how creative arts and technology subjects are the most prevalent areas for practice, material and process-based teaching (attracting practice-based academics). Economics has driven this shift too. In a financially pressurised sector the appeal of cost efficient delivery is clear. At around half the cost of academic teaching, with a natural bias towards skills-teaching that arguably increases graduate employability highly skilled technicians with teaching qualifications represents excellent value for institutions and contributes to what Brue Macfarlane describes as an unbundling of traditional academia.

This recent elevation in the profile of technicians is in marked contrast to the unremarkable low visibility workforce these workers once were. I worked as a technician myself throughout the 2000s and found myself unable to move into an academic role, instead choosing to progress my career through leadership and management. However, the landscape has changed. From my conversations with current technicians it is clear that many envisage a future in teaching, and indeed value it as the most important element of their roles. I believe that most arts academics would agree that technical instruction is critical part of the student learning experience and accompaniment to academic teaching. In my experience technicians teach practice and process whereas academics are more likely to deliver lectures, theory, develop concepts while also contextualizing the work and guiding the trajectory of learning. However, as the importance of practice rises and technology pushes concept closer to practice technical/academic hybrid roles titled ‘Technical Instructor, Technical Demonstrator, Technical Tutor, Teaching Technician’ etc. are now routinely advertised on jobs.ac.uk.

My study also found that technicians are developing into other traditionally academic activities such as giving tutorials, providing formative feedback and supporting summative assessment, supporting research, conceptual development of student work, facilitating interdisciplinary and experimental projects, evaluating new and emerging technologies, writing funding bids for equipment etc. I term these new HE territories ‘synchronous space’ in my own writing.

As technician duties evolve, their managers and their leadership philosophies must too. In his book (The Higher Education Manger’s Handbook) Peter McCaffery suggests that non-academics (technicians in this instance) are more likely to engage with university staff management/development agendas, unlike academics who ‘tend to be a culture of knowers rather than learners and for whom the benefits [of appraisal] are prioritized low’. My own experiences support this increased appetite for growth and development and I did so through allocating time and resource to my team where possible. In addition to incentivising participation in fellowship I also championed the UKPSF to non-academics with other university stakeholders and advocated the scheme through gaining SFEHA myself, demonstrating my commitment and hopefully inspiring ‘followship’ and a commitment to remaining in good standing. The technicians who expand their practiced found themselves increasingly exposed to opportunities. This aligned with Lewis and Gospel’s 2016 paper (Technicians Under the Microscope) that stated ‘technicians themselves need to be more willing to avail themselves of, opportunities for training in a broader range of skills than is required for their current role’.

Yet, transitioning technicians out of technical careers should also be viewed with some caution. Work by the University of Sheffield identified that retention of skilled technicians with HE is a major risk. The Technician Council concluded the ‘UK must educate another 450,000 technicians across all sectors by 2020 to address a massive skills shortage’. It therefore seems sensible, that with such clear benefits to the technicians gaining academic credentials such as fellowship institutions should also consider ways in which to retain them rather than lose their best practice-based teachers to industry or academic roles at rival institutions.

My research insights on this understudied HE phenomenon was published in October 2018, titled: Creative arts technicians in academia: To transition or not to transition? in the Journal for Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education.

To conclude this blog post, my work on the value of HEA Fellowships to arts technicians is still in progress. I have completed a follow up study that specifically questions the value of fellowship to arts technicians and the resulting article is planned for publication in 2019. I will share a link to it here when available. In the mean time I would love to hear about the experiences of technicians, tutors and their non-academic managers experience of working on the blurred seams of academia. Please do comment on this blog or email me directly tsavage@uca.ac.uk.

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