Professors? We have hundreds...

In a bid to boost its worldwide appeal, Warwick University is breaking with tradition and, as in the US, giving all its academic staff the title of 'professor'. It's a controversial move that is dividing higher education. Nick Jackson reports
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n interesting career opportunity has opened up for academics who do not want to wait until middle age for their students to start calling them "professor". Go to Warwick. From autumn next year every one of the 850 academic staff at the university are to be given the title of professor.

In a controversial decision that sees Warwick turning its back on the centuries old European tradition of professors as an academic aristocracy, the university will become the first in the UK to adopt US titles for all its academic staff. Lecturers will become"assistant professors", senior lecturers and readers "associate professors", while professors will remain "professors".

Like other leading UK universities Warwick is looking to set itself up as a global brand. It believes that the old academic job titles will confuse international students and academics used to the US system. Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at the university, admits that the move will devalue the status of the professorship, but only marginally. "The benefits outweigh the costs," he says. "Terms like reader are so crazy and outdated they cause more confusion than anything. When you say would you like a readership to someone in California they don't know what you're talking about. It seems a reasonable step to take the American route."

At present the status of professors in the UK is a balance between the aristocracy of Europe, where professorships are only awarded to a small academic elite, and the democracy of the US, where it just means that you are an academic. Warwick's decision looks likely to be taken up by other universities, tipping the balance in favour of the American model.

Some academics are unimpressed. "It's ridiculous," says Professor Lee Harvey, director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation at Sheffield Hallam University. "If you're going to have a professor title you should have it as an accepted and exalted title. When you hear someone is a professor in America it doesn't mean anything. It devalues the professorship. Why not call everybody vice-chancellors?"

University officials are keen to stress that this is a move towards internationalisation rather than Americanisation. It is a claim that many academics outside Warwick are finding hard to swallow.

Professor Harvey condemns Warwick's as a triumph of style over substance. "It's a totally superficial example of Americanisation," he says. "It's just a silly gimmick. They think it will give them credibility but they're shooting themselves in the foot." Rather than clarifying academic roles, Professor Harvey believes it will lead to more confusion. "A dual hierarchy in the UK is totally confusing and totally unnecessary," he says.

There is already one other higher education institution that uses the American hierarchy, the London Business School (LBS) which has been using American academic titles for more than 15 years. Patrick Barwise, professor of marketing at the LBS, says that academics at Warwick should expect to come in for some stick. "There's a certain amount of backchat you get from colleagues at other universities," he says. "They say that every 12-year-old is a professor at the LBS, but that wasn't a high price to pay."

The main motivating force behind the title changes at the LBS was recruitment. Business studies is an American subject and many of the LBS's staff are recruited from the US, so it made sense to align with US norms. "In business studies the top US schools are so dominant," he says. "They're a hell of a lot better than we are. All the non-American schools are planets dancing around the American solar system. If you're trying to recruit faculty then the main talent pool is the US."

Business studies is a peculiarly American subject. Applying US titles across all the board is a very different matter. Some British academics are concerned that the adoption of US titles is symptomatic of a British wanderlust with American academia. Professor Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and President of Universities UK, is dismissive of the use of American titles. "It's a matter of rebranding rather than of an innate structural benefit," he says.

"You can be seduced into thinking that by looking like America you can end up with the money America has." What will help British universities compete on an international level, says Professor Bone, is more funding allocated through a competitive system. The name change is only the latest American initiative to be adopted across the pond. While some, like alumni relations, have been a success, others, like the European Institute of Technology, have been attacked as nonsensical translations which waste time and money. Instead of always looking to the US for inspiration, says Professor Bone, we should be looking more to Europe, and in particular Scandinavia.

British academia has been moving away from the European professorial model for some time. Chelly Halsey, emeritus professor of sociology at Oxford and author of The Decline of Donnish Dominion, believes this is a problem. "When you start on this slippery slope there's no turning back until everyone's a professor, it gets destroyed," he says. "That's already happened."

There has been a big expansion in the number of professorships in the UK. In 1960 there were a little over a hundred professors at Oxford, out of around 2,000 academic staff. Now Professor Halsey estimates that between a third and a half of all academic staff at Oxford are professors.

"Nearly anyone at Oxford is called professor," he says. "It's difficult to tell who deserves the title and who doesn't. The Oxford professorship has been abolished." Professor Halsey reserves his greatest scorn for professors at the former polytechnics. "It's a joke," he says. "But one that wouldn't be made in the presence of the person with a chair of hairdressing."

Professor Halsey opposes Warwick's reform as another nail in the coffin of the status of the traditional professorship, and a move closer to an academic body where respect is given to wages and money, rather than prestige and reputation. But more democratic dons reckon that the professorial sprawl of the last 20 years makes Warwick's move less of a threat than it might look.

"Professors in the UK are such a broad church now it doesn't really make much of an impact," says Lisa Jardine, professor of renaissance studies at Queen Mary University. "I don't measure people by their title, I rank them by their published work and reputation. A professor in catering is not the same as a professor in neuroscience, but we're all highly qualified and poorly paid."

Also true for Warwick's lecturers and readers. But Warwick's new "professors" should not expect too warm a welcome from the old guard. Until everyone else starts doing the same, of course.