Title scramble

January 9, 2014

The story about academic ranks/titles at Kingston University (“Kingston v-c defends last post for principal lecturers and readers”, News, 2 January) raises again the conspicuous lack of standardisation across the UK’s universities, which serves only to confuse rather than to offer clarity – hardly a worthy aspiration for learned institutions.

Despite their (notional?) status as independent institutions, universities in the UK are unambiguously part of a national system of higher education; hence a consistent pattern of academic ranks/titles would seem to be appropriate. A clear opportunity was available – and astonishingly missed – to ensure comparability when the polytechnics achieved university status in 1992, but the absurdity of having “senior lecturers” as senior staff in pre-1992 universities and as junior staff in post-1992 universities has persisted, along with the anomaly of having “principal lecturers” in the latter but not in the former.

The US university sector is much more diverse than its British counterpart, and individual institutions (in general) have much more independence. Nevertheless, there is a clear-cut and consistent transparency across the US higher education system in terms of a hierarchy of titles/ranks spanning assistant, associate and full professor. Some institutions in the UK (eg, the universities of Nottingham and Warwick) have adopted what is in essence the US system of academic titles, which makes for even more anomalies in this country…but to what end?

This lack of consistency can also be found among the heads of UK universities, who adopt one or more titles (including chief executive, president, principal, vice-chancellor and warden). In the interests of clarity, why is this array not also standardised?

Richard M. S. Wilson
Emeritus professor
Loughborough University

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