We're all colleagues

The wasteful technician-academic divide needs to end, says Sally Feldman

July 17, 2008

It's the final day of the degree shows and Phil is slumped on the floor of the gallery, exhausted. He's been enlarging, framing and hanging for nearly two weeks; then, since he's also a professional photographer, he's taken pictures of all the events and posted them on the website. Meanwhile, Sarah is finishing off the bubbly presented to her by a grateful group of film students who needed to explode a car and rescue a badly burned body without contravening health-and-safety rules - a trick she picked up when she worked on camera in Elstree.

As for Joshua - he's locked in the animation suite showing students how to make a ninja chicken dance and how to simulate Jonathan Ross being eaten by Godzilla - one pixel at a time. Tom's got some work in local radio during the holidays, but first he has to make sure the newsroom's set up for the summer school, while Dan is designing a new studio, and Jenny is helping the masters students with their location recordings - underwater.

It all sounds commendably lively and energetic - just what you'd expect from teams teaching creative subjects in universities. The difference, though, is that these aren't teachers. They're technicians. This means that they will be confined to stricter hours than the academics, will be on different pay scales and protected by a different union. And they represent one of the last clear signs that the class system is alive and powerful in higher education. Even the name denotes a second-class operative: someone who mends rather than uses, who takes orders instead of giving them.

You couldn't find a better example of the kind of old-style job demarcation, which may have been useful in safeguarding the interests of workers a hundred years ago, but which eventually became a straitjacket bedevilling any sensible working arrangement. I can still remember National Graphical Association printers fighting to keep women "off the keyboards" when digital typesetting arrived; when directors would have to edit in secret so that the "craft" unions wouldn't object; when if a radio producer so much as touched a mixer the studio managers would walk out. Nowadays, presenters will drive their own desks, reporters will design pages and file copy via the internet. You can mix an entire concert in your office, produce a news bulletin with a hand-held camera and make a hit record in your bedroom.

A couple of years ago, we launched a degree in computer games, jointly with the School of Computer Science. They provide the programming and engineering; we offer animation, storyboarding and sound design. Critics from more traditional backgrounds couldn't see the point because computer geeks have traditionally fitted into one compartment and the creatives into another. But more than 60 per cent of the first graduates of that course have been snapped up by film and design companies. Meanwhile, more than 90 per cent of our broadcast journalism postgraduates have landed jobs where they will be recording, editing and getting the whole shebang on air. So the old divisions between producers and technicians are vanishing fast.

But that's not how it works in universities. Technicians, often highly experienced and knowledgeable, are still regarded as second-class citizens. I was shocked when, early in my career as a dean, I witnessed a senior academic snatching a set of safety instructions from a colleague. "You can't tell us what to do," he sneered. "You're only a technician."

And it's that kind of attitude that eventually takes its toll. People who have worked as technicians for a long time - watching their close academic colleagues enjoy research remission, freedom, promotion and longer holidays - can become bitter. Especially since those same academics will sometimes be performing similar technical tasks: setting up studios, demonstrating software, editing, wielding cameras and fiddling with wires - but earning more, with a higher status. So, required to work to strict timetables, the more weary technicians will eventually refuse to take on anything extra, to work over their set hours, to perform any task not defined in their yellowing outdated job descriptions. They won't come in at weekends; they won't change lights because they haven't had ladder training; they take time off for a headache; they won't learn the new software; they won't even smile at students because it's not part of their contract. They develop the technician's chip: not the one powering the motherboard, but the one biting into their shoulder.

And very often what happens is that these talented people begin to miss out on opportunities that once they would have grabbed. Why trouble to go out on a shoot when you won't be paid extra? What's the point of joining in a lighting workshop when all you're required to do is switch them on and off? So talent gets abandoned, opportunities missed, partnerships can become soured. It's a huge and terrible waste. What has to happen is that academics must stop seeing and treating technicians as oily rags, and technicians have to regain their confidence. This means tearing up outdated contracts, rubbing out demarcations, getting everyone into the same union, creating new jobs that combine technical support with teaching, and offering real development, real career opportunities and real futures. Most of all, it means abolishing that word "technician" once and for all, along with clipboards, brown coats and separate dining areas.

That way Phil, Joshua, Dan, Tom, Sarah and Jenny will be recognised and rewarded. And there'll be no more spanners in the works.

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