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Pathologies of Professionalism in Higher Education

30 May 2019 | Dr Catherine O'Connell Dr Catherine O’Connell, Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope University, reports on the recent ‘Pathologies of Professionalism in Higher Education’ colloquium.

The academic professional is often described today as being in crisis, or under threat. There are significant and intensifying challenges in the higher education environment, with sector expansion, public funding reduction, alternative forms of provision and new forms of accountability making new demands on academic professionalism. Through these processes, the ‘real’ economy is a growing factor in redefining the academic’s professional role. So, do we need new concepts and theories to express and address these contemporary dilemmas? What kinds of professionalism can survive conditions of increasing academic precarity?

These questions were explored at a colloquium hosted by Liverpool Hope University’s Centre for Education and Policy Analysis on 25 April 2019. The event attracted a diverse audience of academics, senior managers, academic developers, and trade union and student representatives. A number of key figures in the world of higher education research provided a problemetisation, provocation and call to action in response to the Colloquium theme.

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L-R: Plenary speakers, Professors Ron Barnett (University College London) and Linda Evans (University of Manchester); speakers and, far right, event convenor Dr Catherine O’Connell (Liverpool Hope); Professor Rosemary Deem

Changing landscapes of learning

The opening plenary considered changing political and social landscapes of academic practice. Dr Joseph Maslen (Liverpool Hope University) opened with some provocative reflections on the historical roots and enduring self-image of academic character. Emphasising how lecturers’ defences of critical enquiry can be cleverly turned against ‘arrogant’ universities by the media, he warned of the contemporary perception of academics as supercilious, cocksure elites in the Brexit moment. In contrast, Professor Kathryn Ecclestone (University of Sheffield) problematised the elevation of vulnerability as a cultural metaphor for both the student and staff body. She observed the rise of therapeutic professionalism within the academy as being shaped by a political rationality which over-emphasises psychological over structural dimensions of vulnerability. Academic responses, whilst motivated by humanist pedagogies, can threaten the culture of critical enquiry in universities.

Organisational contexts and futures

The second plenary focused on pathologies of professionalism located within the academy. Attention was directed to research orthodoxies that can prevail within and between disciplines through epistemic hierarchies, and to the limiting discourses of professionalism constituted by metrics and measurement. Professor Rosemary Deem (Royal Holloway, University of London) provided an unflinching analysis on the conditions which frame the darker side of professionalism. Increased precarity and measurement and reduced autonomy have rendered academia a less special profession than previously and have reduced academic freedom and control. She posed a key question: ‘Is academic professionalism about retaining power/control or sharing it with others for the public good?’ Contrasting the differing management strategies that can be directed towards these two distinct goals, she advocated a set of more holistic and authentic conceptions of professionalism oriented to the latter objective.

Professor Julian Williams (University of Manchester) considered the diverse and sometimes contradictory activities of universities amid a policy context which emphases the exchange value of higher education more than its use value. Offering a unifying concept, he proposed that universities should reassert their use value in providing the cultural infrastructure for both teaching and research. To achieve this, he argued for the transcending of disciplinary boundaries and for academic professionals to be “knowingly undisciplined” – reflecting on the contribution and limits of each discipline to the object of study.

Theorising professionalism in contemporary academic contexts

For some time, analyses of these changing conditions have focused on ‘neoliberal governmentality’, often drawing on the ideas of Michel Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu. Moving beyond this, several contributors at the Colloquium highlighted the limits of prevailing theorisations and the need for new theories and concepts to capture the dynamics of change. In the first plenary, Kathryn Ecclestone emphasised how Foucault’s perspective can mask the materiality of the conditions which shape academic practice. In the second plenary, Julian Williams observed how Bourdieu’s perspective is applied as a catchall to explain the exchange value of higher education; a framing that is too narrow and one directional.

Continuing this theme in the third plenary, Professors Ron Barnett (University College London) and Linda Evans (University of Manchester) both considered the forms of theoretical and conceptual construction that may be necessary to reflect contemporary challenges to academic professionalism. Ron Barnett questioned whether professionalism is being vacated or co-opted in response to external metrics and returned to R.S. Peters’ definition of professionalism as both task and achievement. He advocated a conception of ecological professionalism – a meta-accomplishment necessary to actualise other forms of agency in the academy. Linda Evans opened up a more expansive, non-evaluative definition of professionalism as modes of being, incorporating the attitudes, behaviours and knowledge of the professionals in question. She called for academic professionalism to be re-situated, offering a conceptual framework to examine its multidimensionality. Such a mode of analysis can expose the ways professionalism is being re-shaped and can give greater specificity to how professionalism is currently being reconstituted across different professional standards frameworks.

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In the final plenary, a stakeholder panel, the debate was furthered by participants representing several perspectives; critical university studies (Dr Eric Lybeck, University of Manchester), trade union (Dr Steven Shakespeare, UCU Branch Secretary, Liverpool Hope University), student union (Feidhelm Toolin, Student Union president, Liverpool Hope University) and academic development and freelance academic (Dr Tanya Hathaway, Coleg Llandrillo). These contributors emphasised the need to:

  • Counter the widely-circulating advertising discourses that are associated with higher education programmes and are predicated on satisfying consumer desires: education should instead engage us to reflect critically on our desires. 
  • Be attentive to the self-exploitation that can be at work in academia and build solidarity across professional groups by de-emphasising functional boundaries.
  • Recognise the positive opportunities for social change afforded through our academic roles, while problematising ways in which our research and teaching can contribute to pathologising our learners and future professionals.
  • Research the lived experience of academics in varied contexts of higher education which are trending towards new forms of role specialisation and differentiation. 

Contributors reflected various manifestations of the changing political and public climate, as well as the unease that surrounds contemporary debates and positions the academy in troubling ways. There were differing viewpoints here on whether the potential for ‘push back’ lies in re-emphasising the specialness of academic professionalism, or alternatively, in the commonalities and solidarity that may exist with other professional groups. Implications arising from the discussion were identified in relation to academic induction, doctoral education, and frameworks for professional learning which reflect these current dilemmas.

The event reflected an interest in identifying spaces to advance professionalism through research, practice and praxis. Going forward, we are keen to continue these explorations, and the interdisciplinary dialogue, through further activities. Catherine O’Connell and Eric Lybeck, the convenors of, respectively, the Pathologies of Professionalism Colloquium and the recent University of Manchester conference ‘Academics, Professionals and Publics’, will be developing a book proposal based on the two events.

Please contact Catherine O’Connell (oconnec@hope.ac.uk) if you would like to keep in touch with event and publication possibilities.

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