The extras that make a difference

Enrichment of university life by academics’ ancillary activities is threatened as the workforce is pushed towards casualisation

January 29, 2015

We all know what academics spend their days doing: they teach and research. Some do one or the other, while most combine the two. That’s the job, right?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Teaching and research may be the meat and drink, but academics are also expected to serve up a rich variety of side dishes, ranging in palatability from tasty morsels to Brussels sprouts.

In our cover story this week, we identify the key ingredients of what some call “academic citizenship” – the additional duties and roles that academics are expected to take on as part of the profession (even if they do not always come with additional salary or status).

Academia is not unique in expecting its staff to go above and beyond, of course, and broad involvement in the life of their institution and profession is what scholars sign up for. There is also a quid pro quo in the benefits to their own careers, and often to their personal satisfaction, of a wide and varied role.

The expectation that universities and their staff must above all operate on commercial lines risks thinning the essential glue of collegiality

As Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick, explains: “When I die, I don’t give a toss if anyone continues to read my books, but I would like to think that there are people somewhere who will remember me for having helped them at some stage in their careers.”

The risk flagged by some of those we speak to, though, is that this broad commitment to university life may be jeopardised by the changing nature of academic careers.

Warnings have been sounded for years about the increasing casualisation of the academic workforce in the US, and similar concerns are high on the agenda in the UK and elsewhere too.

In a recent Times Higher Education article on the challenges facing early career academics, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, once again highlighted the “highly precarious” position of many academics in terms of job security, and figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of fixed-term posts in the UK increased by 8 per cent between 2008 and 2013.

Another shift is towards splitting the component parts of an academic career: Hesa reports that, at the last count, .1 per cent of academic staff in the UK were on teaching-only contracts, up 1.9 percentage points year on year.

The danger is that increasing casualisation – coupled with a more linear approach to the job and the ever-growing influence of metrics and the like in performance management – risks undermining or killing off the model of academics who are broadly invested in higher education, who can and will range across the areas of “academic citizenship” that we identify this week as essential to the prosperity (not to mention pleasure) of the profession. In short, the expectation that universities and their staff must above all operate on commercial lines, with little or no recognition of the “altruistic” contributions that have long been so important, risks thinning the essential glue of collegiality.

There are always reasons for optimism given the motivation and spirit at the heart of most academic careers, but repeated warnings from within the profession seem to be going largely unheeded. Starved of academic citizenship, universities would quickly find themselves facing famine conditions.

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