4TU.CEE is co-organisor of the SEFI2020 conference. This blog is part of the SEFI2020 blog series.

Blog by Nina Bohm, PhD candidate at TU Delft

Watching the online keynote of Ruth Graham is somewhat like the scientific equivalent of going to a pop concert. Over a hundred colleagues from the international engineering education community tuned in this afternoon at the SEFI conference, to hear Graham present to us the progression of university teaching around the world. I felt in many ways a scientific ‘groupie’. At times, slightly in awe for seeing the researcher I read so much work from up close, but mainly, excited for the perspective she was going to share today.

Pop icon
In the engineering education field, Graham is a pop icon. In her unparalleled academic career, she has dedicated most of her work to higher education reform. Speaking to thousands of professionals in universities across the world, over the years, her research has offered a mirror, in which we are asked to take a critical look at the progression of engineering education globally. Almost every report that she produces causes a wave of discussion in the engineering education community. The discussion today at the SEFI conference is no exception.


The mirror that Graham so eloquently presented to us today comes from the findings of her most recent study ‘Teaching Cultures Survey 2019‘. Graham: “If there is one thing that 9 out of 10 academic professionals mention as a challenge in university teaching, it is the reward system.” The survey showed that there is a widespread perception of disparity between reward of teaching and reward of research in higher education. This is probably not an unfamiliar observation for most people in the online conference.

Rewarding of teaching achievement

Challenges in rewarding teaching
Graham identifies two main challenges in the reward system of university teaching. Firstly, the absence of clear and accepted definitions of progressive ‘levels’ of teaching achievement that punctuate each stage of the career ladder. The graph above shows that currently apart from the very start of the very end of the scale teaching achievement is rewarded and Graham points out that this should be a much more cascaded system. Secondly, the inadequacy of the forms of evidence currently used to demonstrate and evaluate the teaching contribution of academics at each stage in their career progression. This is the familiar dilemma that it is much easier to measure research outputs than it is to measure education outputs.

Collaborative movement for change
As PhD candidate working on the crossroads between education science and an engineering discipline, the prospect of becoming part of a broken reward system is daunting. If a PhD ever was a strategic career choice to begin with, then definitely not in the area of higher education, seems to be the implicit conclusion of the chat discussion going on in parallel with Graham’s presentation. However, Graham’s own conclusion is not pessimistic at all. Not only does she offer alternatives (also read the report ‘Improving University Reward for Teaching‘), she also shows that there is a significant collaborative movement amongst our own community for changing these academic career pathways and reward systems.

Flexibility is key
The change that I seem to find most appealing is to work towards a more flexible system that allows us to move between research and education during our careers. Although single tracks, where the focus is either on research or on education, might seem more efficient, the university is not meant to be an institute of silos. Research and education should not be separated as two competing activities within the same organisation. They are both indispensable to the academic process. If there is one career pathway that proofs this, it is that of Ruth Graham herself. It is, therefore, rewarding to see that just shortly after her presentation, she received the Leonardo Medal as a reward for that outstanding contribution of international significance to engineering education. Every community needs its pop icons to give us, a younger generation, something to look up to.



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