Surplus professors urged to fall on their swords

November 7, 1997

It is time to introduce a stricter system for awarding chairs, writes Ken Stout

SINCE the early days of the education system, the position of professor has been widely sought by academics as a mark of their status. In the United Kingdom this title has, until fairly recently, been regarded as one awarded solely to leading lights in the various disciplines. In the United States, France and Germany, however, universities employ the title to denote lecturing academics, but they employ various grades of professor - associate, assistant and full - to describe their status, with the title of "full" professor usually reserved to denote excellence in a chosen field of study.

In the British university system the title professor has traditionally been measured by a combination of criteria, including proven excellence in teaching, administration (course leadership, senior committee membership) and research and scholarship of national, and preferably international, significance.

Normally any candidate for a chair has had to demonstrate competence in at least two of these three areas. Unfortunately this criterion has not always been applied rigorously, even in the traditional and civic university sector. In fact, major UK universities with which I have been closely associated would, if pressed, reluctantly admit that they have professors they would love to retire. In fact they have retired some of them.

In principle, this weeding out of inferior professors could have been completed by the year 2000 had it not been for education developments in the 1980s. During the period when the former polytechnics were aspiring to become universities they began to appoint their own professors. Each polytechnic drew up its own criteria for appointment and many based them on well-established university criteria. But some of the former polytechnics began to corrupt the process.

A tussle began between the established universities and the former polytechnics in an attempt to stem the appointment of low-quality professors, but sadly it failed. Softer assessors were appointed, often weak professors themselves, and from establishments that did not understand the principles behind professorial appointments. The outcome was a "rash of professors", which "pock-marked" their establishments. Unless there is remedial action in all universities, the human leprosy will meander on until approximately 2010. But let us be clear. The problem is now not confined to the new universities but has spread across the system.

How can we move to a cure? First, the criteria of academic excellence should be redefined in line with the objectives of the research assessment exercise and reinforced through the appointment of assessors for chairs of only the highest quality and academic credibility.

Second, all professors should be charged with annual appraisal of their scholarship. This is already favoured by institutions such as Nottingham University, which has announced that it expects all its staff to gain a grade 4 in the next assessment exercise, with the implication that professors will be expected to perform at grade 5.

Third, promotion to a chair should not be regarded as a reward for past efforts - favours or deeds - but as a recognition that the accolade brings lifetime responsibilities and expectations. The benefits of such an approach is that those unworthy could be demoted.

Any professor in the UK system who is worthy of the title cannot object to being measured against the criteria grade 4 or 5. In my opinion a grade 4 is the minimum acceptable performance. In universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Durham, I would expect grade 5 to be applied.

Professors who could only demonstrate performance at grade 1, 2 or 3 should be encouraged to leave or retire and remove the embarrassment from their institutions. Are there many professors as low as grade 1 and 2 in universities? Unfortunately the answer is yes. I have worked in civic and new universities and I have tried to avoid rubbing shoulders with them.

I should like to invite professors to examine their achievements and then their consciences and, if they find themselves falling short, do the honourable thing.

Ken Stout is professor in the school of engineering, University of Huddersfield.

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