Academic titles

I sat through a very good seminar last week. The speaker was introduced as a Professor, which surprised me a little as they were quite young (not that being young should prohibit one from becoming a professor though). When I looked up this person’s homepage, I discovered that they were an Associate Professor which is what some universities are now calling Readers. I believe that one of the reasons for doing this is that all academics in the USA are called Professors. In the UK you typically start as a Lecturer, then become a Reader (although some become Senior Lecturers) and then, if sufficiently worthy, a Professor. In the USA you start as an Assistant Professor (when you’re tenure track), become an Associate Professor (when tenured), and then a full Professor. It seems as though some in the UK think that this gives US academics more credence than academics in the UK who are at a similar level and hence want us to have a similar system here.

I don’t object to changing academic titles in the UK but I do think there are a couple of issues with this. One is a slight misunderstanding of the US system. In the US, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor are actually job descriptions rather than job titles. When I was an Assistant Professor, I was typically referred to as Dr, rather than Prof. It is possible that US academics use them as titles when in Europe, but in the US this is often not the case. Also, most academics in the the US will progress through from Assistant to Associate to full Professor. A full Professor in the US is, therfore, not especially distinguished; it just indicates where you are in your career. In fact, most US universities have an additional level called Distinguished Professor, with only a few per department. In the UK, a Professorship was typically – in the past – something that only a few in every department achieved. Not every academic with a research profile would become a Professor. These would have been equivalent to a Distinguished Professor in the US. Now, almost all academics who maintain a research profile becomes Professors.

My main issue is that we seem to want – in the UK – to have the best of both worlds. Most academics who maintain a research profile will become a Professor (a little like it is in the US), but we still pretend that this means that Professors are somehow distinguished. However, it has now become – as far as I can tell – simply a part of career progression and so can’t really be regarded as somehow illustrating that this person is “better” than a typical academic.

Personally, I’m quite happy to see the UK go the route of the US and have most academics progress to become Professors. We should just stop pretending that a Professorship means anything particular significant. We should probably also consider some kind of distinguished Professorship scheme to try and indicate who is truly exceptional and who is simply a good solid academic and researcher. I guess I just think we should be honest. Either every research academic can progress to become a Professor and it is more of a job description than a title, or we revert back to Professorships becoming rarer and more selective. We just shouldn’t (and really can’t) have both.

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Independent schools

I was quite surprised to read about Michael Gove’s recent
speech in which he makes the argument that the domination of many high-profile positions in the UK by privately educated people is morally indefensible. I largely agree with what he said but was surprised to hear him make these statements, especially as he was giving a speech to independent school headteachers at an independent school in Brighton. I wasn’t that surprised to then find that George Monbiot had very quickly written a response in which he accused Michael Gove of being disingenuous.

I must admit that I have given the issue of private schools some thought recently as one of my children starts high school next year and we considered, briefly, trying to get a place at a private (fee-paying) school rather than our local high school. We didn’t consider this for long as we probably can’t afford it and our local high school is very good. I do, however, also have an issue with the advantages that one seems to get from attending a private school as opposed to a government school. I should acknowledge, however, that I don’t really have an issue with parents sending their children to a private school as it is their choice and parents are entitled to do what they think is best for their children.

I have two main issues. One is that I think the state school sector would be better if there were essentially no private schools. Everyone would have a stake in the state sector and there would be an incentive to have as good a state sector as is possible. In the US, private schools aren’t common. Most people go to state schools. I also recently read an article arguing that one of the reasons that the school system in Finland was so good was that there were no private schools (I haven’t checked if what was quoted in the article was correct though). There would be consequences, but I suspect the country as a whole would benefit.

Given that we have a private school sector, my other issue is how much credence we give to what I think of as the added value of a private education. The confidence, social skills, etc that a private education typically bestows on its pupils. These are all perfectly good attributes and I wish the state sector was better at building these kind of skills. However, I have a sense that in many cases these “skills” make someone appear much more competent than they probably deserve. If we were better at judging a person’s actual skills and competences, the added value of a private school education would become less significant.

It is possible, I guess, that a private education is so much better than a state education that we just have to accept that the best people to become judges, government ministers, business leaders, etc are those who have been privately educated. I just don’t believe that this is correct in the first place. If – by some chance – it is, we are then doing our country a huge disservice. To be selecting our leaders from the minority who are privately educated means that we are missing out on many potentially talented people who are, through no fault of their own, educated in the state sector.