Young guns ditch old values

December 15, 2006

Academics are starting to embrace business culture as they scale the career ladder, writes Tony Tysome.

A generation gap is opening between a new breed of ambitious young career-minded academics who embrace a performance-management culture and their older peers who cling to traditional notions of autonomy, collegiality and scholarship.

This is a key message of this week's annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, in Brighton, where academics were due to discuss a series of research papers charting dramatic changes to academics' jobs and professional identity.

Ron Barnett, chairman of the society and professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, said the emerging gaps in the outlook of staff from different generations could lead to a "splintering of the academy and of academic identity".

"We have to ask whether we can any longer talk of the 'university' as if it is a unity that we understand, given this splintering of attitudes and beliefs about the nature of academic life."

Research by Janice Malcolm, a senior lecturer in academic staff development at Kent University, argues that academics can no longer consider themselves professionals with a "higher calling" because the new "task masters" of performance targets for student recruitment, student satisfaction, quality assurance and research ratings reduce them to the status of more employees.

"Young academics have never known anything different and accept it as normal," she said. "For them, being an academic has become much more about getting ahead in their career than advancing knowledge. We have allowed things to fragment around us, and we have not defended universities as major social institutions. We have let ourselves be undermined."

Arwen Raddons, a lecturer in the Centre for Labour Market Studies at Leicester University, said academics were having to pick up new skills "on the job" with little training or support, and were increasingly isolated from each other as the number of roles they must fill expands.

She said young academics "felt the pressure to publish from the start" and accepted administration "as a necessary evil"; this made them different from older colleagues who had focused on teaching early in their careers.

The last line of defence against the erosion of academic values could be pro vice-chancellors, according to David Smith, director of the higher education policy unit at Leeds University, who has researched their role.

He said: "They exemplify the difficult questions around how you take care of what a university should be while responding to the challenges of the changing environment."

But Cath Lambert, a sociology lecturer at Warwick University, saw hope in the determination of many young academics not to let traditional values die.

She said: "Young academics accept that there are hoops they must jump through; but at the same time they see there are ways of managing the academy that preserve its integrity in providing education for education's sake."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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