Why I... believe top academics need personal agents, not a mass trade union

July 23, 2004

The planned merger of the Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe to form a white-collar tertiary education union is confirmation of the "mass" nature of the expanded UK system. It is also a harbinger of further change. In particular, the new mega-union cannot maximise the interests of the minority of elite academics. Such academics should be represented by personal agents on the model of writers, painters and sport stars.

The university sector has been transformed in two generations by an order-of-magnitude growth in the number of institutions, staff and students. In future, most of tertiary education will comprise relatively uniform, modular, incremental educational programmes delivered by a complex workforce of teachers, managers and academic support staff. A large and heterogeneous union will have its work cut out establishing and enforcing a national minimum salary and conditions.

Increasingly, highly structured undergraduate courses can be purchased complete with a full range of teaching support materials. Such courses can be delivered by anyone with a relevant PhD who can teach. Institutions will therefore resemble other large organisations in modern societies, with teaching staff appointed on "objective" criteria. From the employer's perspective, the brutal truth is that most academics will function as replaceable "units".

But not all academic institutions will fit this pattern and not all academic staff will be replaceable. There will be a minority of elite universities with a different mission, and a minority of elite academics employed on a personal basis. Each of these academics will have a different profile of expertise and will perform a different function; therefore organisations cannot replace such individuals without changing functionality.

The elite is important because academic performance has a skewed distribution. Just as a couple of dozen writers produce the lion's share of bestselling novels and a handful of singers make up the bulk of opera CD sales, so a minority of academics attract most of the funding, produce most of the high-impact publications and garner the big prizes and other status markers.

But why should top academics shell out on an agent's commission when they could represent their own interests? After all, top managers (such as vice-chancellors) don't use agents yet are able to stick up for themselves.

The answer is that managers have the personality and professional aptitude to wrangle over their own contracts, while academics are more analogous to creative artists and performers. Authors and actors have long realised that their temperament and training ill equip them to negotiate on their own behalf and that a good agent can raise their own fee - and then some.

UK tertiary education is in transition, and it may take another decade for the changes to work through. At present, university incomes (essentially student numbers and fees) are centrally determined, and there is little incentive to employ the best staff. But when universities begin to act autonomously, star academics will become prized for their effect on institutional profile and profitability. We can see signs of this in the burgeoning research assessment exercise "transfer market".

UK academics retain a vestigial sense of scholarly solidarity from the days when university teachers formed an elite guild. The new tertiary education union will put the final nail in this self-imposed egalitarianism. The academic elite will be unable to perform its proper functions under the standard conditions of a mass tertiary education system; special provision must be made.

Top academics will just have to hold their noses, grit their teeth, and get used to the bigger salaries and better conditions their talents can legitimately command.


Bruce Charlton, School of Biology and Peter Andras, School of Computing Science, Newcastle University

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