By Ian McNay
My views on ‘professional’ and ‘professionalism’ in HE have been tested in several ways recently. One of my doctoral students has just got his award for a study on the topic. A major part of his work was a case study in a modern university, with a survey of teaching professionals with fellowship status in HEA either by a PGCE or a reflective portfolio of experience route. The survey group presented a homogeneous monochrome picture of what Hoyle, many years ago, labelled ‘restricted’ professionals – classroom bound with little engagement in the wider professional context, focused on subject and students, with punctuality and smart dress as professional characteristics. That reflected the response I got from some academics when I was appointed as a head of school: I met each one of my staff and, as part of the conversation, asked their view on development issues and future possibilities for the school. The response of several can be summarised by two: ‘I don’t have a view; not my role and above my pay grade’, and ‘You’re the boss. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’.
One senior colleague remarked that we had an FE culture, not an HE culture, given the background from which staff had come. To that extent, they were consenting to, colluding with, a proletarianisation of professionals, and an acceptance of the corporate bureaucratic culture that dominated the university at that time. Things are somewhat better currently, but one expectation of professionals is to conform to the norms of the university (though with little influence on what those norms are stated to be). That, in turn, reflects one of the recommendations of the Stern report on REF, where a new quality criterion for research is how far projects fit the strategy of the university, so that control of the research agenda – what to do and how to do it – moves even further away from the researchers to those not engaged in the work, some of whom never have been.
That concern is reflected in procedures. I cite three incidents.
For my annual appraisal, I am required to state which career pathway I am following: teaching, research, or enterprise. ‘Both..’ or ‘all three’ cannot be accepted by the computerised model of data submission. Equally, when asked to identify a development need, I am offered a choice of how to meet it, but only one – not a mix of a course, mentoring and reading around. Just the one, which suggests the HR department, from where this comes, does not understand learning, the core activity of my university, in the context of professional development.
The second is about REF. Procedures require that I lodge my outputs on the university archive and identify those that might be submitted. I do so, and they are sent for review and grading by an internal panel. I am invited to a feedback session, where I am given ratings, which match my own assessment. The fuller feedback is then read to me. I am not allowed to have a copy to take away and reflect on and use when planning further output. I have to remember it.
Finally, I chaired a PhD viva panel, which failed the student, twice. The student lodged an appeal which criticised my behaviour and that of two external examiners. That was over a year ago. I submitted a short statement through my line manager, to an appeals panel, the establishment of which seemed to confirm that the claims had prima facie validity. I notified the externals, who had not been contacted. I heard nothing more. I checked a couple of months ago with the student’s supervisor who knew nothing about progress, so I checked with the central research student office. It appears the appeal has been completed and the outcome communicated with the faculty staff member responsible for such matters. The result will be communicated to others involved ‘in due course’. The faculty rep. acknowledges knowing the outcome but does not feel able to tell me anything. So three people whose integrity has been impugned are not to be told at the earliest possible opportunity whether the claims has been accepted or rejected. Is that a way to treat three senior professionals? Am I being unprofessional in criticising operational realities, which presumably are seen to fit the norms of the university – defined by whom? Not the professionals to whom they apply.
And my student? I encouraged him to test his findings in other universities. They were different. Two resisted some of his terminology – ‘professionals are the admin staff in the offices’; ‘professional competence’ – do NOT use competence in any discussions here’. One was at the other end of the spectrum – it had a prescribed and circumscribed role for teaching professionals, to which they conformed for fear of sanctions, including dismissal.
Do others have similar experiences of a reduced concept of what an academic professional should be being adopted as a norm? I am secure enough to continue to be critical and able to walk away if I choose, but I meet many colleagues from many institutions who have families to support and mortgages to pay, and so do not challenge. That cannot be good for either academic creativity, or collegial democracy in our communities, with an eventual impact on quality and the student experience. Articles based on my student’s research are in preparation, which may help inform a necessary debate.
SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich