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Doing academic work

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by Rob Cuthbert

Summer holidays may not be what they were, but even so it is the time of year when universities tend to empty of students and (some) staff – an opportunity to reflect on why we do what we do. What do universities do? They do academic work, of course. What exactly does that involve? Well, as far as teaching is concerned, there are six stages in the ‘value chain’. For every teaching programme a university will:

  • Design the programme
  • Validate it
  • Teach
  • Assess students
  • Certify achievement
  • Evaluate, review, redesign the programme

Universities often subcontract elements of that chain. They may allow professional bodies or consortia of academics to steer curriculum design. They bring in people from outside the university to contribute to teaching. They may involve members of relevant professions in assessment, and in evaluating and reviewing programmes. They often seek additional recognition for their awards from other bodies. But they never subcontract validation and certification. Those are the stages which any university worthy of the title will keep to itself, because they guarantee the academic autonomy of the institution. They are the ultimate protector of core academic values.

It follows that if you work in quality assurance you are at the absolute heart of the academic enterprise. Quality assurance is fundamental to the standards and health of the university. This may be an unpalatable truth to some people in universities, whose default setting is complaining about pointless bureaucracy.  My experience of multiple full-time and part-time roles in universities of all kinds has shown me that the people most likely to talk proudly about the centrality of educational values in connection with their everyday work are the porters, the cleaners, the estates managers, the administrators, the committee secretaries … all those working in roles that tend to be labelled by reference to something they are not: ‘non-academic’, ‘support’ or ‘back office’. The best efforts of SRHE member Celia Whitchurch to articulate the dimensions of the ‘third space’ have not yet managed to rebrand workers in universities in a way which does not instantly reveal whether they are above or below the salt. Even the grandly-styled Council for the Defence of British Universities seems more inclined to defend just some: “Our founding members include past and present presidents of the British Academy, the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Learned Society of Wales, as well as Nobel laureates, former principals and vice-chancellors”. No ‘support staff’ here.

Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham, has often written about the ‘us and them’ mentality which still pervades universities. In his latest blog for WonkHE on 21 May 2018 he compiled some recent academic broadsides and concluded that:

“Anyone who sees administrators either as merely lovely and well-meaning or as semi-literate philistines but in either case ultimately expendable really does need to think a bit more about how universities really work. We are all pulling in the same direction and administrators, whatever their roles, are dedicated to enabling institutional success not preventing it.”

In these unbundled times ‘academic staff’ increasingly refers to people with only a partial connection with the full range of a university’s academic work: research staff, teaching fellows, educational developers, associate deans, pro vice-chancellors and others, all properly and necessarily focused on just one part of what makes the university what it is. Too many ‘academic staff’ are less likely to see the bigger picture, and more likely to weaponise educational and academic values for some real or imagined battle with ‘the university’ or one of its malign manifestations: ‘the management’, ‘the admin’ or sometimes just ‘them’. But it does not need to be like this. As Charles Knight pointed out in Times Higher Education:

“I truly have never felt that at Edge Hill University there is this hard divide between academics and administrators – and that doesn’t just refer to processes; it’s about culture and values. … if your university does feel as if it’s a protracted conflict between two tribes, then I’d suggest that your problem isn’t your administrators – it’s your culture; and everyone has a part to play in changing that.”

Everyone has a part to play.

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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