Less pay, but no loss of prestige for academics

Their salaries may have declined, but academics still wield social influence. Matthew Reisz reports

August 19, 2010

Reports of the "declining social position" of British academics are greatly exaggerated, but power and influence lie disproportionately with the research elite.

This is the conclusion of a study by Dave Griffiths, research Fellow in applied social science at the University of Stirling, who said it was often argued that "academics have lost their social positioning and political influence through a series of changes to both the profession and political governance in the latter half of the 20th century".

Some have put the blame on the expansion of the higher education sector in the 1960s, and others on reforms introduced by Margaret Thatcher.

In an article entitled "Academic influence amongst the UK public elite", published this week in the journal Sociology, Dr Griffiths acknowledges a steep relative decline in academic wages over the 20th century - from 3.7 times the average in manufacturing industries in the late 1920s to 1.5 times the average 60 years later.

But he strongly contests the idea that this change has been accompanied by a "loss of prestige".

Dr Griffiths reached his conclusion after examining the backgrounds of 2,858 directors of 187 quangos and public corporations in the UK, ranging from the BBC to the British Potato Council. No fewer than 200 were identified as academics.

There seems to be little ground for believing that "the elevation of Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979 ... signalled the end of academia's association with public decision-making", the paper says.

Even within the so-called quangocracy, analysis of links suggests that "academics sit on the most influential and well-positioned organisations, producing access to elite circles", such as members of the aristocracy and executives of FTSE 100 companies.

Dr Griffiths also notes that despite clear evidence of continuing academic influence, close to two-thirds of scholars on the boards of quangos come from members of the Russell Group of large, research- intensive universities. In addition, professors are far more numerous than lecturers, heads of department, deans and vice-chancellors.

In some ways, this represents good news for British universities, the paper suggests.

"Professors, particularly at the most prestigious universities, can be shown to be continuing to hold their high public profile and social influence, which have not been undermined by the expansion of higher education and alterations in quango board composition. Opportunities for academics to form part of the British social elite remain clearly evident," the paper concludes.

Asked to speculate about the broader picture, Dr Griffiths said it was plausible that "the same number of academics are influential today as in the past", although this obviously represents a smaller proportion of a much larger pool.

"The influence of academics hasn't really declined, but it's not democratic - big chunks of the sector aren't really represented," he said.

Particularly at a time of significant spending cuts, Dr Griffiths said this posed a real danger that education policy could be skewed.


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