Firm footing

Technicians, the academy’s ‘Cinderellas’, play vital roles and deserve proper recognition and support, argue Kelly Vere and Roger Murphy

November 22, 2012

An article in last week’s Times Higher Education acknowledged that university technicians are the “unsung heroes” of research (“Technically indispensable”, 15 November). A recent study of their role, standing and morale does indeed suggest that they have become the “Cinderellas” of the sector.

This is not because demand is low: there were more than 30,000 technicians in UK higher education institutions at the last count, and those applying for such roles will confirm that posts are not easy to get. It is not unusual these days for applicants for junior technician positions to have PhDs and impressive CVs. How can there be a problem when the job attracts candidates with such strong backgrounds and qualifications?

Our research shows that the nature of the work being done by university technicians is diversifying and increasingly moving into areas that were once regarded as the responsibility of other staff. No longer do technicians spend their days dressed in white coats, quietly wheeling trolleys laden with equipment into laboratories. Increasingly, they collaborate on cutting-edge research, journal papers and applications for funding, and help supervise research students. In addition, many do substantial amounts of undergraduate tutoring, teaching and marking.

In many respects, these developments can be seen as a fantastic opportunity for a group of talented staff to contribute to some of the sector’s core activities, and many technicians that we talked to welcomed the diversification of their work. There is no doubt that universities get great value from them.

But our study also found that many of the activities undertaken by today’s technicians are not properly recognised. Many are denied the career development opportunities available to university staff who choose to follow an academic or research career path. In particular, a number of technicians report that they are excluded from the support available to academics who undertake teaching and research. As we move into the brave new world of higher tuition fees, it would be fair for students to ask why the technicians who provide a significant proportion of their support have been prevented from participating in the opportunities on offer to their academic counterparts.

Despite their undoubted talents and growing importance to the UK academy, technicians often feel undervalued, under-represented within the decision-making structures of the university and excluded from the activities, events and facilities that would allow them to carry out their work on a par with other staff groups often performing similar roles. Many identify a glass ceiling that is hard to penetrate for those with a technical background.

There are also problems in relation to trade union activity. Many technical staff are members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme and the University and College Union negotiates on issues such as USS pension reforms, yet the UCU appears to exclude technicians from the list of university staff eligible to join it.

Efforts are being made to tackle many of these problems. As “Technically indispensable” showed, some positive schemes are emerging to recruit, train and accredit technicians. Valuable work is being undertaken by Higher Education and Technicians Education and Development, a small, recently formed organisation that works with subscribing institutions to try to address some of the issues that concern practitioners. In addition, the Science Council recently launched a professional register for technicians. It will be interesting to see whether universities encourage their technical staff to participate in the scheme and achieve professional status. This may go some way towards acknowledging the role and responsibilities of the technician, and could help to shake off the low esteem many report being associated with the role.

But to judge by our study, there is still a major issue to be faced. The role of technicians within higher education needs to be established on a much firmer footing, not just seen as something that exists to prop up systems and plug whatever gap needs filling.

The challenge for universities is to take bold steps to invest more in their technicians through training, support and career opportunities. At a time of scarce resources, such investment is needed to ensure that the sector retains a dynamic and properly equipped workforce.

Technicians make a massive contribution to the success of universities on many fronts. It is not enough to get Cinderella to the ball: proper recognition, support and a sense of identity are required for this increasingly vital part of the UK higher education workforce.

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