The lecturers worth their salt

February 26, 1999

Di Burton argues that traditional staff should not regard the 'practitioner' academic as a second-class citizen

Today's universities are fighting to win students by showing their relevance in the working world. This has led to the emergence of a new breed of practitioner academics such as myself. But my status is still questionable in many senior common rooms. While I view the time and priority given to research as an unimaginable luxury, the "traditional academics" disregard the likes of me, a professional too busy practising to conduct research.

Yes, the ancient snobberies and pecking orders continue to dominate senior common rooms throughout the land, and we soon learn for ourselves what was meant by "below the salt" in the days of formal dining in college.

The academic staff, happy enough to be relieved of some teaching, make sure practitioners realise that, without PhDs and published research, they are only second-class citizens.

I do not wish here to debate the perceived disparity between old and new universities, the latter with their emphasis on applied learning; the former with their research priorities. I am concerned though with the more applied university degree in schools of business, social science and education, to name but a few.

They know they need the best academic staff to provide students with depth and breadth of knowledge, and they also need practitioners to provide knowledge that has been applied, found effective, and is current.

Do we therefore need to redefine the notion of an academic? Will a new term end this culture of two tiers in universities - the rigorous academics and the relevant practitioners?

Because my teaching - corporate communications - is based on my own professional consultancy to businesses at boardroom level I am not inferior to those who have spent the past ten years in pure research.

Nor, if I applied for a fractional post at another university, should I be considered an inferior candidate because I do not have a PhD. My scholarship is sound; I am up-to-date with the latest work in my field, but my research is, in essence, action research. My argument is that this is as valid as pure research. I have been too busy applying my scholarship in solving real-life problems in my very varied marketplace to produce much work for publication myself.

If the government desires lifelong learning and espouses the cause for vocational education, it cannot be taught by academics who have spent their lives merely observing the real world.

Pure research is of course necessary, but applied research, though different, is of equal value. This need has been recognised, often with reluctance.

In some departments, a few fractional posts have been created and practitioners invited in. In other departments, visiting practitioners from the outside world give lectures, which are quoted with pride when funds are sought from industry, but traditional academics often view them as being useful only for attracting sponsors.

We practitioner academics are welcomed with relief, however, by our students, to whom contact with the working world is all important. Most graduates look for a good job on leaving university and any teaching that provides them with knowledge about practice and insight on the latest issues in their chosen field is welcomed.

I am proud of the fact that when teaching media relations, I can open The Telegraph or The Guardian and explain the processes by which a story appeared. The important fact here is that it is my story about my own clients that brings immediacy and added interest to any teaching session.

As Donald Schon says in Educating the Reflective Practitioner, university schools, whether law, business or engineering, are criticised for turning out graduates who are not good at their jobs. "What aspiring practitioners need most to learn, professional schools seem least able to teach," he writes.

There is a hierarchy of knowledge, he continues, with basic science at the top, applied science in the middle, and technical skills of day-to-day practice at the bottom. "The greater one's proximity to basic science, the higher one's academic status," he writes.

If a university school wants to raise its status, it is more apt to bring in an academic with a string of publications to his or her name than a top practitioner.

Of course, this is all part of the same mindset that denigrates vocational subjects and regrets that polytechnics were ever renamed universities.

I and my fellow fractional post-holders bring funding into our universities. We are approached by businesses who are looking for tailor-made postgraduate courses for their staff. I am working on two such profitable programmes. Here industry had urgent problems that needed addressing - they rejected a course run by a traditional university - and came to me as a working professional. This is a good example of how practitioner academics provide a major contribution to raising and maintaining standards, and addressing competencies required by those in the workplace.

It is the balance of the practical and the academic that makes these programmes so invaluable. The research academics themselves use us - when they are looking for case studies on which to base their published research.

They talk about academic rigour, but what about the rigours of practice?

My rigour spans the boundaries of both theory and practice. I know my value to the university, both in terms of the financial contribution I bring and the links with my profession, and so do my students.

But when will my status in the university be as high as those whose whole life it is? I think it is time to recognise this new breed, not as second-class citizens, but as equals.

Di Burton is a consultant fellow andsenior lecturer at Trinity and All Saints,a college of the University of Leeds.She is a fellow of the Institute ofPublic Relations and managing partnerof Cicada Consultants, a public relations consultancy based in Harrogate.Her clients include GE Capital Consumer Finance, the Institute of Directors, Aqumen Group Plc and the Rover Group.

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