The precarious professorial life

November 17, 2016

During four decades of attacks on tenure and shared governance in universities, the one thing that academics have historically been permitted to retain is a system of academic esteem bestowed by promotion to professor. The feature on the transformation from doctor to professor published commentaries that mentioned the status of the role and opportunities, once the accolade has been secured, to take risks in research (“Promoted from doctor to professor: what changes?”, Features, 10 November).

The message was that to be promoted to professor confers a sense of arrival after many years of academic toil and accomplishment. These interviewees embraced traditional certainties; just one mentioned a sense of feeling like a freelancer in the absence of criteria for professorial pay. But for professors in many universities, the reality has become unanchored from the myth. It is not a lack of clear criteria that impedes professorial progress, rather it is the over-zealous implementation of quite unattainable targets in the guise of performance management.

In several universities, as well as undergoing performance reviews as frequently as newly appointed probationers, professors must now meet exacting criteria for “quality” of publications. Progression to the next professorial level must be achieved within five years, and this depends on meeting certain “drivers”, which include securing a research grant as principal investigator every two years, producing 3* and 4* research excellence framework “outputs”, supervising graduate students, producing a significant impact case study, leading high-prestige international collaborations and, of course, continuing to teach. Failure to meet all these expectations will result in the public humiliation of the Improving Performance Procedure, and possible demotion. No accrual of reputation can be permitted; the criteria must be met every year, not just over the course of a distinguished career. In this way, any prestige associated with the rank of professor must be considered temporary, as is its tenure. Professors, then, have been made to join the expanding precariat of the academy.

Liz Morrish

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Reader's comments (1)

The period from starting training as a Ph.D. student until one reaches promotion to a professorship spans a couple of decades during which the individual becomes an expert in a field of science. This development is by no means a triviality, it forms the basis of the professorial experience, upon which knowledge is built, scrutinized and safeguared, transmitted and applied. When professors are asked to go either because they did not make an announcement deemed "fancy" in certain venues or because their application for funding was rejected (often with comments that the research proposal was very good, but there was insufficient money to support all deserving applications), entire scientific fields are weakened, sometimes even turn extinct. This irreplaceable loss and ensuing damage remains largely unappreciated in the current modus operandi in the UK. A second issue, somewhat better recognised but nevertheless not corrected, is that breakthroughs in knowledge almost always require concentration, time and effort and also depend on collaborations between scientists that dedicate such concentration, time and effort towards understanding. University positions used to offer such a possibility, they clearly fail to do so in the current model, as they put immense pressure for immediate responses. There are two further reasons why the destruction of the universities in the UK is not widely understood. First, because those who speak out are almost always sidelined, sometimes to the extent of seeing their careers destroyed, instilling fear to express one's views (the inconsistency of this fear with holding an academic position should be discussed more openly). Second, because those who call the game of the day (grants, papers, etc.) always reward a minority, which is then presented as the cream of the cream and compared favourably against metrics generated to reward precisely such a minority. Hence, all good academics not meeting targets are then viewed as failures and hence they self-sensor. The decline of higher education in the United Kingdom is slow, because it has a great tradition that still has an influence despite the present attacks. The consequences of the present folly, that affect the wellbeing of this generation's academic body, will result in a weakened society in the following generation, when painfully-built expertise, honesty and knowledge will be found lacking.


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