Some academics claim the proliferation of professorships devalues the title, but others say its narrow definition as an academic expert is outdated in a changing landscape. Anna Fazackerley reports
"There is a symbolism attached to the title professor. If we give these titles out willy-nilly, it debases the currency," argues Richard Wilson, professor of business management and administration at Loughborough University.
Professor Wilson blames the explosion in the number of UK professorships - almost 2,000 new chairs have been introduced in the past few years - on the premise of promoting people who have proved themselves in an administrative rather than an academic sense. The position of dean should not, he argued, be an automatic ticket to a coveted university chair.
"It is a publicly conspicuous title, and therefore Joe Public has a right to expect a professor to be at the leading edge of their discipline," he said.
"The public will be shortchanged if all professors are doing is shuffling forms."
Many academics who secured their chairs some years ago feel similarly frustrated by what they see as the changing face of the professoriate. But with universities thinking hard about their overall mission - and about how to compete in the battle for research funding - some degree of change seems unavoidable.
Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at London University's Institute of Education, said: "I think the upsurge in the number (of professors) is inevitable. We need to think through what we mean by professor in an age of mass education."
Professor Barnett has been reviewing how institutions across the country make senior appointments. He discovered that most are moving away from judging candidates on their academic record alone.
Instead, would-be professors will typically be assessed on five criteria: research and publications; learning and teaching; contribution to the university; contribution to the wider academic community; and wider service to society.
And in line with the Government's emphasis on economic results, some institutions are also looking at rewarding entrepreneurial achievement with professorships.
Professor Barnett said all universities faced difficult judgements. "Are you going to allow someone to become a chair who is manifestly brilliant at teaching but has a poor research record? Or someone who excels only in management and leadership - skills we need desperately?" he asked.
Gavin Reid, professor of economics at St Andrews University and chair of the Standing Conference of University Professors, called for professors to be given the freedom to change focus throughout their career without having to be accused of dumbing down.
He said: "We shouldn't be uneasy if a professor at one point spends 80 per cent of his time on administration and 20 per cent on research."
Professor Reid added that one of the principal problems facing professors was the expectation that they should multitask - and achieve excellence in research, teaching and management all at the same time.
Many in the sector believe that professorships have become a vital tool in the drive to secure the best staff, and in particular to woo so-called research stars in time for the 2008 research assessment exercise.
James Tooley, professor of education at Newcastle University, said:
"Creating too many of these elite positions is symptomatic of the general malaise in universities. New universities are having to compete as equals when they are not."
Richard Joyner, emeritus professor of chemistry at Nottingham Trent University, argued that salary was at the heart of the issue.
"The professoriate is the only area where universities have real salary flexibility," he said. "If they have people they want to keep, the easiest way is to give them a professor title."
Professor Joyner said salary was a bigger factor in some subjects, such as management and business, in which good candidates could often secure a great deal more money working outside academia and needed to be tempted with an impressive title.
Yet whether it is acceptable for the professor label to mean different things in different institutions remains open to question.
The first Times Higher professorial league table, compiled using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, suggests huge disparities across the system.
At Essex University, the London School of Economics, Royal Holloway, University of London, City University and Lancaster University, almost one in five members of academic staff has received the title.
At the other end of the scale, only 2 per cent of staff at Leeds Metropolitan and Northumbria universities can lay claim to the honour.
David Gordon, dean of the faculty of medicine and a vice-president at Manchester University, said some of the new breed of professors might not have been awarded a chair 30 years ago, but were doing no harm because they were perfectly good at their job.
But he was concerned that standards had dropped too far at some institutions, where it had become "extraordinarily easy" to get a professorship.
Professor Joyner admitted that new universities would inevitably have different standards from longer established ones when it came to research records. "Certainly at Nottingham Trent we would look for less in the way of quantity of research output than would happen in old universities," he said.
But he argued that this did not have to mean poor quality professors. "This approach is justifiable as we are looking at people who are doing research but also teaching for 500 hours a year, whereas in old universities they might be researching and doing 100 hours teaching," he said.
Professor Tooley said: "As professors, we know that a professor from Oxford University is better than one from Newcastle University, and one from Newcastle is better than one from Luton University, and we are happy with that."
But an established professor in a provincial university warned against making any assumptions about employment standards in particular types of university. He said: "I have had to adjudicate on personal readerships in Oxford University, and they were people who would not have got a readership here. The belief that Oxbridge professors are the best may well be wrong."
Yet Professor Gordon pointed out that academics could get too hung up on titles. "If you look 'professor' up in the Chambers Dictionary , you will see that it is defined as 'a title assumed by charlatans, quacks, dancing masters etc'," he said. "And by convention a fencing master is a professor - as is a Punch and Judy puppeteer."
Who has the most chairs?
Professors as a percentage of academic staff
Percentage of professors
London School of Economics
King's College London
London School Hygiene/Trop Med
Wales College of Medicine
Liverpool John Moores
London South Bank
West of England
Source: Hesa Staff Individualised Record 2002-03. Hesa takes no responsibility for conclusions derived from the data by third parties. Universities are not listed where data has not been recorded properly