Academics face increasing divisions and isolation

September 1, 2000

Are academics in the 21st century part of a unified profession?

Not according to a group of researchers from four universities who will warn an audience in Cardiff later this month that the climate within higher education has led to deep divisions of labour within universities. As a consequence, they say, academics have become increasingly isolated.

"The occupation of university teacher no longer automatically carries the assumption of autonomy and status," says their paper, A Manifesto of Hope, to be delivered to the British Educational Research Association.

Because of a widening gulf between a small number of affluent institutions and the rest, the academic workforce now includes an array of occupational groups. These are divided from one another partly by the tasks they do and partly by influence and seniority within the institution.

"These categories are being reinforced through the introduction of teaching-only contracts, the development of specialist research centres, differentiated pay scales, independently negotiated pay settlements and an increasing reliance on research contract staff," the paper says.

It argues that such divisions are further enhanced by the creation of academic managers who are taking over responsibility for the overall progress of students' education. At the same time, there is a new hierarchy within the student body that puts research-focused graduate students at the top while classroom-oriented undergraduates gain only secondary status.

What can be done? One answer would be a professional reorientation and a willingness to adjust the relationship between the world of universities and the world outside. "Our small world encounters the world out there in the form of the students we teach and the wider constituencies that we address through our research and writing.

"That encounter is framed by a shared concern with learning - without a respect for and nurturing of learning for its own sake, the university and those who work and study within it will be seriously diminished."

The only problem is that the so-called marketisation of university education has led to an increased emphasis on quality control while what is needed is a shift towards values of care and affection, of public concern and welfare.

The authors stress that the choice is not between ivory tower alienation and the managerialism of the bureaucratically accountable institution. "What needs to be renewed and sustained is a broad, inclusive tradition of scholarship that privileges the notion of the examined life."

Towards a New Academic Professionalism: A Manifesto of Hope by Jon Nixon, Sheffield University, Andrew Marks, Stirling University, Stephen Rowland, University College London, and Melanie Walker, University of the West of England.

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