Interview with OLT Fellowship Winner Marina Harvey

Teche speaks with Dr Marina Harvey, Academic Developer in the LTC, who has recently been announced as a successful recipient of a 2014 OLT National Teaching Fellowship for her work on sessional staff issues.

Marina, tell us a bit about how your research surrounding sessional staff began.

That’s a very long and old story, because it started nine years ago with two consecutive internally funded grants here at Macquarie.  We spent a whole year working with just one department, looking at how to best support sessional staff with learning and teaching. We then spread to another three departments.   Some departments slammed the table at the meetings and said ‘we are not having any policy, it’s not flexible.’ So we had to work around that and come up with different strategies to support sessional staff.


We started with a survey to learn a bit about our sessional staff across campus and we found out they are a very diverse group. People become sessional, that is work casually or on a short-term contract of two years or less, for many different reasons and at different stages of their careers. So as we learned that they were so diverse, we knew that ‘a policy’ would not support all sessional staff, we had to think of other ways of supporting them and good learning and teaching. And we came upon the idea of standards.


Macquarie also joined in in many different ways on national projects around sessional staff that were happening at the time, and we learned a great deal about the research there, and used all of these connections and links to form the basis for what then became an OLT project called BLASST (Benchmarking Leadership and Advancement of Standards for Sessional Teaching).  That was a two-year project led here at Macquarie, with three other universities – the University of Technology in Sydney, the University of Canberra and the University of Tasmania.  So we had another city campus and we had another state and we had regional campuses. And we tested out the standards that we had developed for BLASST with those universities through one-day benchmarking workshops. That’s an achievement, because benchmarking sometimes takes days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months. And we were able, through developing an online interactive tool, to cut things down to one day.


What are some of the current issues facing sessional staff in higher education?

Quality learning and teaching, because that’s what we’re all about. Support for sessional staff, that’s a big one – things like, stating that good practice is providing sessional staff with similar opportunities for professional learning to other staff. They can be small things like making sessional staff feel part of your team by inviting them to meetings and having input into decisions that are made around learning and teaching. Getting feedback from sessional staff after a unit  or subject has been taught – because if their contract finishes and they are out of the university, you lose a lot of really important intellectual information with them.  With all of this activity, we would say that sessional staff also need to be paid for their involvement, because that’s only fair and right.  And we also need to balance this with an attitude of sustainability – how do we retain good sessional staff? Because for some departments it’s really a big challenge to find sessional staff. We do need to put into action a lot of these strategies for good practice.

So what would some of these strategies be?

Sessional staff should be eligible for learning and teaching awards. Professional learning and an academic orientation to support sessional staff with publications and research – because how will they ever get a tenured position without research? If they are involved in teaching, if they are involved in project work, building in some publication outcomes for them.  But whatever you do it has to be flexible, because they are all different.

What do you intend to do with your fellowship?

We have trialled the BLASST standards through the national project with our four partner universities.  Now we are going to increase its scope and try and systematise good practice. We want to devise an enhancement to the program that we currently have for the workshop, to build in some more sessions on important methods such as distributed leadership and participatory action research which can support small projects in universities to support sessional staff. So we are going to revise the program and trial it here at Macquarie first, and then we are going to go out to states around Australia, and bring communities of practice together, of people who are interested in leading good practice for sessional staff.

We also want to go to the non self-accrediting providers, the private providers.  We’ve been reaching out to a national summit that we had originally – we attracted 40 higher education institutions to that – we need to go out to the private sector, that’s another 150 organisations who rely heavily on sessional staff. So we need to get them involved with the standards and they’re interested, they’re really eager.

And we also want to spread the word further.  It has been acknowledged that here in Australia we are way ahead of practices in say, the United Kingdom. I’m planning to go the conference that is hosted by the Higher Education Academy there and share the outcomes of the Fellowship with them. I also plan to talk with a few key people about using standards rather than policy as a different way of enhancing good learning and teaching with sessional staff.

If anyone is looking for more information about this, where can they go?

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3 thoughts on “Interview with OLT Fellowship Winner Marina Harvey”

    1. Congratulations Marina!! Now I know why you are always busy…. you still need to Tai-Chi and flex away your muscles!

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