Behind the scenes

June 11, 2015

Inadvertently or otherwise, Laurie Taylor’s use of a theatrical analogy to describe the relationship between academics and administrators proffers an interesting if potentially unsettling vision of the university of the future (“Keeping the peace”, Features, 28 May). While the idea of the academic as actor has obvious appeal in terms of creativity, autonomy and status, it is less clear whether such a model would be as attractive from a contractual perspective. Short-term contracts, periods of unemployment and low wages – other than for the box office stars – contrast sharply with the world inhabited by post-probation academics. For the increasing number of academics on short-term contracts, the parlous position of the jobbing actor will sound horribly familiar.

This move towards short-term contracts for both researchers and teachers should prompt us to pause and take the theatrical analogy to its logical conclusion. Under the control of those despised administrative types, or even worse, the financial management types, the actor-academics are little more than hired hands with limited influence. The box office stars will be well remunerated and enjoy an enviable status, albeit while constantly looking over their shoulder for the next rising star seeking to elbow them aside. The bulk of the academic cast, however, will face a precarious and penurious existence, constantly seeking work from return-motivated universities, hoping for that breakthrough to stardom that few will ever make.

A salutary thought for those attracted to the academic-as-actor analogy, and a call for those academics who value what British universities have represented to recapture the leadership of their institutions and indeed the sector.

Angus Laing
School of Business and Economics
Loughborough University

I enjoyed Simeon Underwood’s thoughts on the relationship between academics and administrators. It reminded me of when, as head of procurement in a large research-led university, I tried to be helpful by writing to academic colleagues in receipt of large grants, offering the services of the procurement office “to help them make their grant go further”. One eminent professor sent a charming reply, thanking me profusely for my kind offer of help, but declining on the grounds that they had already chosen their suppliers and were perfectly capable of doing so without our help. Never a truer word, perhaps?

Tom McAra
Head of strategic procurement
University of West London

The gulf between academics and administrators is not new. As an eager young lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast in the early 1980s, I spent weeks crafting a grant application, finished in good time and took it to the bursar’s office for the staff to confirm the one salary and national insurance costing. As the submission deadline approached, I heard nothing, so phoned them. The gentleman at the other end, after listening to my request and without effectively covering the mouthpiece, shouted across the room: “There is some clown academic wants to know if his grant has been signed off yet.” After at least 50 hours’ work at my end, and 10 minutes not done their end, I was called the clown.

Then there was the conversation I had with an administrator whose first university post was in the registrar’s office. It was two years before they discovered that the office did anything that was related to students or academic departments. Maybe they are specialists, but they should integrate with their reason for existence. So much for shared aims.

Hugh Fletcher
Queen’s University Belfast (retired)

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