Juggling staff have crisis of identity

July 7, 2006

Academics can no longer answer: 'What do you do?' Jessica Shepherd reports

Academics are experiencing an identity crisis, a conference heard this week.

University staff juggle so many roles they no longer know how to respond when asked what job they do at dinner parties, delegates at the Higher Education Academy's annual conference heard.

Some see their role as part-time administrators as a result of having to respond to the demands placed on them by teaching inspectors. Others consider themselves directors at the helm of organisations such as the centres for excellence in teaching and learning. The rest may be managers as well as teachers and researchers.

Many in academe struggle to define exactly what they do, let alone what their colleagues are employed to do, Lesley-Jane Eales-Reynolds told a discussion session at the conference held at Nottingham University this week.

Professor Eales-Reynolds, an immunologist and director of a Cetl at Portsmouth University, blamed the identity problem in part on a lack of a professional body for academics.

She said: "Most people would like to encapsulate in a sentence what they do. But increasingly as academics we have many different labels of teacher, researcher, senior manager and administrator, among others.

"When academics go to a dinner party they don't know how to answer the 'what do you do' question. If someone says they are a director of a centre for excellence in teaching and learning, no one outside academe is going to know what that is.

"We don't have a professional body that lays down the standards and guidelines, so how can we have a professional identity? I think having a professional body might solve the issue, but academics are divided on this issue."

She said that changing higher education policies, the Quality Assurance Agency and the growing importance of university support staff had made it harder to pinpoint who academics were.

She said: "The QAA has had a big impact on the identity problem. I am not saying that we haven't needed the QAA, but it has meant that a lot of academics have had to take on administrative roles and understand the nature of teaching.

"We have also become a service industry, and the professionalisation of support staff has contributed to the identity problem. Support staff are now an integral part of any university team. The identity problem has become a talking point among academics."

But Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, argued:

"Academics derive an identity from the discipline they work in, whether that is engaging in research in a certain field or developing new teaching methods. Being an academic means you need to have a wide range of skills.

Many academics belong to societies linked to their subjects."


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