Professors profess, or so says one common-sense definition of the profession.
What they profess and how they do this has changed slowly over the years as universities have moved from serving the Church, law and medicine to fostering the development of the liberal arts, science, technology, social science and business. The days of professing from the pulpit may have gone, but the growth of higher education and shifts in technology have done little to displace the traditional professorial emphasis on the discovery and generation of new knowledge.
Although the role of professors has evolved slowly, the number of people with the title has increased markedly. In 2006-07, there were 16,485 professors in the UK, just under 10 per cent of the total academic staff population - this figure represented a rise of nearly 25 per cent over the preceding seven years. As the number of professors grew, the breadth of their specialisms widened. Today there are professors of climate change and forensic linguistics, to name just a few.
The expansion in the number of professors alongside the research assessment exercise has fuelled competition for a limited pot of research money and, in turn, this has changed the job of professors. Where once the role was public and focused on teaching and research in equal measure, today it is increasingly private, focused on the generation of texts and protected from teaching. The research excellence framework, which will replace the RAE, looks set to add to these pressures because it will induce many to withdraw from the public world as they focus on gaining citation in a select few journals and on winning research grants.
When the credit crunch hits public-sector spending decisions in a year or so and the Government seeks to make good recent shortfalls in corporate investment in research and development, it seems likely that public-sector money will be more tightly focused on science, technology, engineering and medicine. The result will be even fiercer competition in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This squeeze on public-sector research money will then combine with the growing interest among government ministers and business people in encouraging academics to undertake industry-focused research and knowledge transfer. This shift in funding and policy will inevitably change the role of many aspiring and established professors. Where once they focused on publications, pounds, PhDs and prestige, in future they will be encouraged to turn their attention to intellectual property rights and commercial contracts.
For university managers who want to pursue teaching or a mission that combines teaching and research, the challenge will be to find other criteria for developing, encouraging and rewarding staff. These criteria will need to be as testing as those used to reward research and enterprise, but they will also need to be transparent and fair if they are to avoid challenge in employment tribunals. Although it may be tempting to give them titles other than professor, for the ambitious a post by any other name may not smell as sweet. And for universities in an increasingly competitive market for fee-paying students, there will be a premium for institutions that have the best teaching professors.
These competing pressures and the growing diversity of university missions will lead to different professorial roles that will need to be specified if institutions are to avoid claims of unlawful discrimination. However, this does not need to be the case. For those who would prefer not to list all the things that might be expected of a person in this critical and creative profession, an alternative would be to define the minimum and pay separately for the things that set the individual and his or her performance apart.
In many US institutions, most staff who meet the requirements of tenure are eventually awarded the title of professor, but they are paid for only ten months of the year. Payment for the remaining two months is either for specified research or additional teaching. For those staff who do not want to undertake these duties, there is the option of taking a vacation or completing a consultancy assignment.
With a growing number of academic staff in the UK competing for a shrinking pool of public research funds, while at the same time undertaking a wider range of enterprise and teaching activities, university managers will need to offer them several career paths leading to professorial status. Professors need to do more than just profess, and universities need to progress to recognise this change.