What's in a title? It's all academic

Elaine Williams looks at the debate over who can be called professor Since the polytechnics became universities, the ranks of professor have been sw elling
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The Independent Online
Oxford's academics have been debating for nearly a year how the title of professor should be used in the university.

An original consultation on future promotions policy revealed such deep divisions in Oxford's academic community that a second exercise was devised last summer to try to square the circle. On that the jury is still out.

On the one hand academics, mainly in the arts, believe promotion to the title of professor should happen rarely, in cases where staff have particularly distinguished research records.

At the other extreme are those who believe large-scale promotions are desirable to retain and recruit staff at the highest level in an international market place and in the light of "more flexible" salary structures at other universities.

Promotion to professor, they argue, should be open to the majority and granted to about 35 per cent for effective and conscientious research and teaching.

That Oxford's academics can contemplate the possibility of rewarding teaching as well as research with a professorship is indicative of a changing climate. In the original consultation, one option considered was that all academics be called professor, asin the United States. That was quickly dismissed.

But while Oxford considers, action is taken elsewhere. Since the polytechnics became universities, the ranks of professor have been swelling significantly. Not all are professors by virtue of their research or scholarly record. Some have gained the titlebecause they are notable managers, heads of department or members of the university directorate. The new universities are also proud they have twice as many women professors as traditional institutions.

At the University of Central England academic staff can obtain a professorship on the basis of their record as outstanding teachers or course developers, or renowned professionals in their own vocational field.

There are those within traditional universities who believe the title is thus being devalued, given to people who have not even got degrees. However, within these longer-established universities, professors are growing notably in number, from 4,500 in 1989-90 to 5,800 in 1993-94. Last year they recorded a 5 per cent increase in professorships, compared to a 1 per cent rise in readers and lecturers.

But voices of concern are being heard in the new universities, too. Last year the University of Northumbria made 20 heads of department professors. One of its most senior academics, Phil O'Keefe, a geographer in the department of environment, gave up thechair at the end of his own inaugural lecture. He said the title was being awarded to staff who had not earned it through their research records. He argued that peer review must be the proper procedure for awarding the title and that academics are made professors because they are respected as scholars.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice-chancellor of Thames Valley University, which has 22,000 students, 64 per cent part time and 40 per cent on non-degree courses - studying for Higher National Diplomas and other vocational qualifications. The university stands alone in stating categorically that its primary purpose is for teaching and learning.

Under the traditional system of awarding professorships based on scholarship, few of its academics would be eligible to be called professor. Yet the university has appointed four in the last year, two of them brought in from outside.

Roger McGough, the poet; Jeremy Isaacs, chief executive of the Royal Opera House; Neil Kinnock, Sir David Frost; Howard Goodall, the composer, and Sheila Kitzinger, the childbirth radical, are among those who have accepted the title. But they must work for it - it is granted only for three years.

These honorary professors are expected to support the development of the university and attend appropriate meetings; they have to offer a minimum of two sessions a year to students; Mr McGough offered workshops and poetry readings; Sheila Kitzinger hosted lectures at her home for students on the MA in midwifery practice. She is also involved in management of the MA - at reduced fees.

Dr Fitzgerald said: "These honorary professorships are an attempt to harness external expertise for the benefit of students. We hope to end up with around 25 honorary professors in any one year. That means there will be two sessions by honorary professors available to students each week of the teaching year. It seems to us like a good idea. I think the professors get an enormous amount of fun out of it and they do it because they support our idea of a university."

Sheila Kitzinger thinks Thames Valley was wise to set a time limit on the title. "People get beyond their best," she says. "It is sensible to pick a time when the holders of chairs are at their most vigorous."