Universities treat us as cash cows - and that's bull, say professors

Widespread mismatch of expectations uncovered by findings of 100-strong survey. John Gill reports

December 11, 2008

Professors regard making money for their university as the least important aspect of their job, ranking it far below helping colleagues and leading research, according to a new study.

But the paper suggests that many of them believe their universities see them as cash cows, with their ability to generate income among their most significant roles.

Presented this week at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference, the paper revealed the findings of a survey of more than 100 professors who were asked their views on their role, both as they saw it and as they believed their employer saw it.

The respondents said that helping colleagues to develop was the most important aspect of their work, closely followed by leadership in research, "being a role model" and upholding standards of scholarship.

Income generation languished at the bottom of the rankings in ninth place.

By contrast, a list of their perceptions of what their university expected of a professor was topped by leadership in research, with income generation coming a close second.

The paper, written by Bruce Macfarlane of the University of Portsmouth, says: "It was also notable that respondents felt their own institutions were far less interested in their contributions to 'local' activities such as influencing the work and direction of the university or representing their department than they would like to see themselves."

The survey found worrying evidence that professors felt their academic expertise was being wasted by their institution, with some 61 per cent of those questioned saying that it was either used "a little" or "not at all".

Their ability to advise senior managers on their areas of specialist knowledge was highlighted as a particularly underused resource.

In addition, a number of those who took part in the poll said that where their expertise was deployed for the good of the university, it was because they had taken the initiative rather than because of any central understanding of what they could offer.

One professor said: "I do mentor, but this is not sponsored by the institution. I do it because I see it as a moral obligation of the role and because people welcome it when offered."

Another said: "While I engage in many of these activities, this is not institution-driven and, frankly, they probably have no idea what I am doing."

A third added that his expertise was called upon to a far greater extent by a university at which he was a visiting professor than at his own institution.

The paper concludes: "Professors represent a considerable intellectual asset to institutions. However, there is clearly a degree of mismatch between what professors see as their role and how they perceive the expectations of their university employers."


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