Petpar project: Part-time teachers improving the effectiveness of teaching and learning through participatory action research

Watters, James J., Christensen, Clare K., Ryan, Yoni, Weeks, Patricia, & Arcodia, Charles (1996) Petpar project: Part-time teachers improving the effectiveness of teaching and learning through participatory action research. (Unpublished)


This report outlines the implementation of an action research project into the experiences of part-time teaching staff at the Queensland University of Technology. These staff included tutors, lecturers, demonstrators, practical and clinical supervisors and visiting lecturers who are not employed on contract but work on a casual basis. The project arose out of considerations of the quality of teaching at the University and an awareness of the growing contribution of casual staff to tertiary teaching across Australian universities. At the same time there has been public sector reform demanding more accountability of publicly funded institutions and examination of their ability to meet wider community needs. As little research has been done in Australia or elsewhere into the teaching experiences and working conditions of part-time academic staff, this project sought to explore broadly the context in which they work and in particular to identify factors which impact on the quality of teaching.

Involvement of part-time staff in the research process was considered vital for identifying issues of most concern to these stakeholders. Participation of part-timers was also vital in the formulation and implementation of processes for change. These considerations led to the adoption of the action research paradigm for this project because participation of practitioners is one of its fundamental tenets. In addition, early anecdotal evidence and claims such as Holley’s (1995) assertion that “it has been clear for some time that the pay and conditions of academic staff employed on a casual (part-time) basis is one of the great scandals of the higher education sector” suggested that issues of social justice were involved; this is frequently a concern of action research.

In order to reconcile the views and concerns of all stakeholders, University administrators and support staff as well as part-time teachers, Guba and Lincoln’s (1993) methodology of responsive evaluation was used. Deans, Heads of School and other high level administrators were included in the research and action phases of the project. It was the belief of the research team that an effective agenda for change involves all major stakeholders. The research team included three full-time academic staff (one with experience of the co-ordination of part-time tutors, two experienced in the provision of professional development support for teaching staff) and two part-time tutors. Thus the team itself reflected a commitment to the participation of major stakeholders in the research process.

The project was supported by QUT and funded by a large QUT Teaching and Learning grant. The first phase of the project involved reconnaissance of the situation of part-time teachers. This involved the collection of quantitative and qualitative data. Approximately 1600 part-time teaching staff in Semester 1 1995 were invited to complete a questionnaire that included both closed and open-ended questions and sought information concerning roles, responsibilities, qualifications, aspirations, conditions and basic demography. A return rate of 55% was achieved. Following this, 29 part-time staff from 23 of 37 schools participated in focus groups. Case studies were then collected from nine other part-time staff, selected to represent people with a diversity of motivations and financial dependence on part-time employment. The researcher who organised and conducted the group and individual interviews was herself a part-time tutor.

After preliminary analysis of the data from the first phase of the project was completed, all part-time teaching staff were invited to attend a one day conference/workshop. The aims of this conference were four-fold: to share the project’s preliminary findings with the group, to provide an opportunity for QUT administrative stakeholders to respond to the findings, and to provide an opportunity for part-time staff to respond to the findings (to challenge or support them) and to move the project into its action phase by brainstorming actions to improve the situation of part-time teaching staff at QUT. One hundred and thirty-one part-time staff attended the conference.

The quantitative findings revealed several issues and concerns. Seventy five percent of part-time staff are employed recurrently. Few part-timers have higher degrees as most are drawn from the professions where higher qualifications are unusual, for example law, nursing and engineering. However, some 40% are undertaking further study. Depending on their role, most work between 3-6 hours per week. A disturbing trend is the lack of encouragement of professional development and limited integration into the teaching and research culture of the institution. A concern also revealed was the low level of involvement of part-timers in course development. A strong interest in teaching at QUT was indicated, with over 95% prepared to continue teaching at the University.

The strongest finding of the project from the qualitative data is the perception by many part-time staff of a lack of recognition of their contribution to teaching at the University and a sense of isolation and marginalisation. Although rates of pay, delays in pay and many hours of unpaid work are of concern to many, the data revealed very strong motivations to teach, and appreciation of the intrinsic rewards of university teaching, including status and being able to “return something to the profession”. However many inequitable practices and many instances of lack of support for teaching are described. Facilities and resources are very limited in many areas and poor communication has resulted in many staff being unaware of many support services and opportunities for professional development. This situation reflects a lack of recognition and appreciation by the University.

The project findings were addressed by the QUT administrators present at the conference and commitments to change were made by them. The findings were discussed and resoundingly confirmed by the part-time staff present. Fifty participants volunteered to be involved in action towards change. Subsequently 21 of these volunteers attended a meeting to discuss options for change. At this meeting the project was concluded, with the full-time academic staff handing responsibility for future actions to the group of part-time staff. A further commitment was made by all part-time staff present to the formation of a professional support association or network with a meeting arranged to implement this.

The research findings and actions for change suggested by the part-time staff were incorporated in the set of recommendations outlined in this report. QUT administrative staff have responded to some of the recommendations and it is expected that by their actions at School and Faculty level part-time staff will work towards implementing the remainder. The formation of a professional association and more localised School-based actions are major outcomes of this action research project and are considered vital in the facilitation of dialogue between part-time teaching staff, full-time academics and administrators.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 9852
Item Type: Other
Refereed: No
Keywords: Action research in education, College teachers, Part, time College teaching Sessional Staff Participatory Action Research Higher Education Teaching, HERN
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > EDUCATION (130000) > EDUCATION SYSTEMS (130100) > Higher Education (130103)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > EDUCATION (130000) > SPECIALIST STUDIES IN EDUCATION (130300) > Educational Administration Management and Leadership (130304)
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Office of Education Research
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Education
Copyright Owner: Copyright 1996 (The authors)
Deposited On: 01 Oct 2007 00:00
Last Modified: 09 Jun 2010 12:46

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