Wednesday, 3 April 2013

At the risk of annoying (British) people ...

I think I may have offended some British academics with a recent blog post ...

I thought it might be helpful to write about why I wrote what I did. Over the last year or so and as a result of moving to Canada I have come to the conclusion that collegial governance in British universities has been gradually eroded – or maybe it never really existed in the first place.

Having worked as a ‘tenure-track’ equivalent in the UK and now in Canada, I have witnessed two very different ways that universities can be run. In contrast to Canada, and from my experience, there seems to be very limited collegial governance in British universities, especially for junior academics on the first rungs of the ever-so-greasy career ladder. This might be hard to stomach as a junior (or senior) academic working in Britain, especially at a time when British-based academics are facing so many unwelcome pressures ranging from the new (e.g. Impact Agenda) to the old (e.g. RAE/REF), and from the external (e.g. market in student fees) to the internal (e.g. student demands). However, I would argue that all these pressures are part of this wider problem with collegial governance … and this is not just my perspective because others like the Campaign for the Public University are raising similar concerns about where British universities are headed.

I want to make my comments here more concrete by referring to the specific example of departmental hiring decisions – the topic of the offensive post I mentioned above. A concrete example will help to illustrate the differences between collegial governance in Britain and Canada as I have experienced them. I’ve outlined these in a table for convenience sake. Where I am unclear about the process (for want of experience) I have speculated – on the basis of anecdotes, hearsay, etc. – and highlighted that it is speculation.


Selection criteria decided by committee members (i.e. future colleagues)

[Speculation: selection criteria decided by HR in conjunction with managers (e.g. head of department) and senior academics]

Hiring committee made up of three to five future departmental colleagues (voting members) and two to three others (non-voting members)

Hiring committee made up of one or two future colleagues and two or three other academics and/or university administrators (e.g. HR)
Committee consists of junior and senior academics, including untenured but tenure-track faculty

Committee consists  of academic managers (e.g. deans, heads of department), senior academics (e.g. professoriate) and institutional administrators (e.g. HR)

Each interview takes one (or two) full-days of each committee member’s time

All interviews take place on one day (usually)
Day-long interview involves research paper presentation, in-depth discussion of research agenda, in-depth discussion of teaching, and general questions (plus lunch and dinner with candidate)

30-minute interview involves same set of questions for each candidate; no time for in-depth discussion of anything
Each committee member spends about a week’s time in total for the whole hiring process

[Speculation: each committee member spends one or two days in total for the whole hiring process]
Committee members making the final decision are (mostly) in your field of expertise (and will be departmental colleagues)

About half (or more) of the committee members making the final decision could know nothing about your field of expertise (and will not be future departmental colleagues)

Now what I want to do is go over several key differences in the hiring process as they relate to collegial governance.

  • First, Canadian academics invest a lot of their time in making a hiring decision; each hiring committee can involve between five to eight full weeks of faculty time (i.e. 5-8 people spending a week each). In contrast, hiring decisions in Britain might take about a fifth of that time. 
  • Second, both junior and senior academics can be (and are) involved in the Canadian process, while in the UK it is largely limited to senior academics and administrators. 
  • Third, Canadian faculty have greater input into the hiring decisions for their departments, actually deciding on who they want as future colleagues. In contrast, British academics frequently don’t get to make these decisions even though they have to live with them. 
  • Fourth, decisions are usually made by senior academics in the UK and there can be a frustrating lack of influence over university governance for more junior faculty. In contrast, there is more involvement in departmental and faculty decision-making by junior faculty in Canada, rather than decisions simply being made by an all-powerful 'professoriate'. 
  • Finally, and more critically for junior academics in the UK, there seem to be very few opportunities for junior academics in Britain actually to get involved in the governance - as opposed to administration - of their department or institution. Moreover, “service” tends to take the form of banal administrative tasks or form-filling for things like the RAE/REF. It is difficult to say why this situation exists in the UK but I would hazard a guess that Britain has a history of senior academics (i.e. professors) simply running the show without even thinking about whether junior academics might want to take part in the governance of their workplace (or simply not wishing to share their power once they've got it).

It goes without saying that these comments should all be taken with a pinch of salt and if they are offensive then apologies beforehand …


  1. Hi Kean, thanks a lot for your blog on this. I am a European citizen (from the Continent as the Brits would say) doing a PhD in Britain. As such I, too, had to learn quite a bit about the inner workings of British academia. Your points on the previous post published on TPII and on this blog post are very much to the point, in my view. What you call the lack of opportunity for junior colleagues to get involved in the life of the institution is something that also affects grad students. My own analysis of this is simply that British academia is, as you say, extremely hierarchical but also, and crucially, there is no sense of COMMUNITY. The concept of community and creating community is non-existent at least in the institution where I am. When I tried to propose initiatives in my department that might foster community and student involvement in the institution I was seen as a THREAT. I was bullied and this was not just in my imagination. For instance, other students were offered conference money to travel and I was not. It took me about 2 years to understand the point you make in your TPII post: you must learn conformity and what your place is. It is crucial to survive in British academia that one knows one's place. They dont like anyone rocking the boat in any way, bringing in innovative ideas or even questioning senior faculty at seminars. This is all very frown upon. Thanks again for your post.

  2. Thanks Bea ...

    I've only noticed the lack of junior faculty involvement in collegial governance as a result of moving to Canada; beforehand it didn't really occur to me that this might even be an issue. Now it seems so ridiculous that we were not more involved.

    For me, it is vital to look at what has happened in the UK in order to avoid the same fate elsewhere.

  3. On the other hand in at least 2 continental countries I have personal experience of (at pg research student level) the junior faculty directly answer to a prof who heads the research group, decides which courses they teach what their research topic is etc, and do a bunch of stuff unofficially, like supervising phd students, which officially is done by the prof. Never mind being involved in the governance of the university

  4. @rexmedorum - I've heard similar stories from a number of European countries where full professors are the only really secure academics and they function like the patrons of junior academics - with all that that entails.

  5. I found that a really helpful post, actually! I'm originally from North America but all my postgrad work has been in the UK, and I'd really like to stay here, despite the REF and the horrendous Impact Agenda. (I'm also in a really small field, where we've managed to maintain the sense of community if only by the shared trauma of being under attack by basically every institution out there and our own university administration.) I'm not sure the US is much better, though Canada may well be; the prevailing rhetoric all over seems to be incredibly hostile toward the humanities and social sciences.

    It is bizarre that British academic departments aren't allowed in the hiring process--I learned this only recently because the department where I'm finishing my PhD is currently without a head, and we have no say at all in the recruitment of a new one, to where we might not even get someone in the same field. It's depressing.

    1. It is depressing indeed ... sounds like a really strange scenario when you can't have input into who ends up joining you as your boss.