No strength in numbers

The UK has more professors than ever, says Stephen Court, but their influence over their institutions, and their optimism, is on the wane

July 26, 2012

Credit: Ian Summers

When it began life in 1851 as Owens College, the University of Manchester had just six professors. That tiny number now seems inconceivable; as of last year, it had risen to 725. Among them are the Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz and physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, inventors of graphene. The university also boasts the UK's most telegenic academic, physicist Brian Cox.

Manchester's example serves to illustrate the changing nature of the professoriate in the UK. In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, professors were a rare species. I have been examining the figures, and in 1925 there were just over 750 full-time professors in the whole of the UK. There are now more than 15,000, as well as 2,000 part-timers. To be exceptional these days, professors need to be a Stiglitz or a Cox, a leading "knowledge producer" or public intellectual.

Despite this growth, the UK's body of professors remains highly unbalanced. Manchester's vice-chancellor may be the distinguished physiologist Dame Nancy Rothwell, but only one in five UK professors are female, despite the fact that women comprise almost 50 per cent of all academics. And compared with the ethnic composition of the population educated to degree level, professorial staff in English higher education are more likely to be white, particularly if they are of British nationality.

There is another paradox. While professors' numbers have surged, from students' perspective they have become lesser-spotted creatures. In 1925 the ratio of full-time students to professors was 54:1. It is now 110:1, indicating the extent to which the rise in student numbers has outstripped increases in staff.

Professors may also be less visible to students because of institutional demands to meet targets for the research assessment exercise and its successor, the research excellence framework. Since the first RAE in the mid-1980s, many senior academics have been given a lighter teaching load to allow them to concentrate on their research and achieve the high ratings that in turn lead to greater research income. Some professors are designated "research-only", and chairs have proliferated as universities have sought to raise their research profile and boost their income. In the past 30 years, professorships have more than tripled.

Because of the funding involved, the profile and the position of many professors has been raised by the RAE. A transfer market for academic stars and their research teams has developed, involving the lure of fabulous facilities and lucrative inducements to jump ship. Senior academic pay is also becoming more transparent, with around one-third of universities now publishing their professorial pay scales. This has at least offered a degree of compensation for another of the major changes to have affected professors since the era of Margaret Thatcher. Despite being in demand, however, senior academics are widely seen as having lost influence over the policies and direction of their own institutions with the advent of a less collegial, more managerial style of leadership.

This is partly the result of the distinct hostility shown to the sector by Thatcher's government, which wielded funding cuts and imposed an audit culture of measurable outputs in teaching and research, accompanied by a drive to reduce the power of academic senates and shift control to small management teams led by a chief executive-style institutional head. Such turbulent times required decisive leadership, it was argued. Professors were no longer knocking on the vice-chancellor's door the way they used to.

Perhaps it is not surprising that senior academics in the UK are feeling somewhat downbeat about their position. In The Changing Academic Profession, a recent international study, UK academics attached a lower level of importance to affiliation with their institution than those in any other country surveyed. The UK's senior academics showed a comparatively high degree of belief that they were influential in helping to shape key academic policies at departmental level, but felt they had relatively little influence at institutional level. They were also among the most likely to say that the pressure to raise external research funds had increased since their first appointment and, worryingly, that high expectations to increase research productivity were a threat to the quality of research.

What is the next major challenge for the professoriate? It probably lies in the area of teaching. With tuition fees for many full-time undergraduates in the UK rising to £9,000 a year this autumn, it is increasingly argued that students will be less willing to be taught by postgraduates than by accomplished academics. Professors are likely to come under increasing pressure to be more visible and to spend more time teaching undergraduates.

Universities may have to learn something from the approach of the new private institution established by A.C. Grayling, the New College of the Humanities, which is marketing itself strongly on its stellar professoriate - including Steven Pinker, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson - who will be lecturing on the college's degree courses.

With the closing date for submissions to the REF only 16 months away, it is unlikely that there will be any easing of the pressure on professors to perform in research. So the next academic year will not be easy. Perhaps, however, it also presents an opportunity. With a bit of luck, the continued and growing demand for their skills in both teaching and research will give professors a platform for reasserting a leadership role within their universities.

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