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Contemporary professorship

It remains the case that it is on the basis of their achievements in research and scholarship that most professors in the UK are appointed – but what is understood by ‘research’ is now much wider than is implied by Halsey, who seems to equate it with published output. Today research funding capture is, in most disciplines, considered an extremely important feature of professors’ research-related work, as is disseminating their work widely, and allowing it to have impact in ways that address practical issues and problem.

The focus on teaching – the key purpose of the early professors – has gradually been eclipsed by recognition that, for the most part, professors should be, first and foremost, distinguished researchers or scholars. That said, in recent years, with the marketization of higher education identifying fee-paying students as consumers of a service that must satisfy their needs and meet their expectations, there has been a resurgence in the importance that universities attach to teaching quality. Research-intensive universities that, three decades ago, may have perceived teaching as something of a side-line (or even a distraction) to their main purpose of research, have had to shift their focus to ensure that the teaching they provide allows them to attract students in numbers required to sustain their viability – particularly as research funding in many subjects is extremely difficult to secure. It is against this backdrop that professors’ remits have widened.

But as I point out in my stimulus paper, The Purpose of Professors (2016), there is increasing recognition that, in the UK, professors’ remits have widened to the point of their being expected to be all things to all people: what a questionnaire respondent in one of my research projects referred to as ‘all-singing, all-dancing professors’. With their roles or remits being most often defined by the all-encompassing umbrella label, ‘academic leadership’, my research has revealed them to live very pressured working lives, feeling that they must meet a myriad of different expectations of them to be, for example: leading researchers, effective teachers, mentors and advisers to junior colleagues, good institutional citizens, high-profile public figures, policy consultants, strategic thinkers, and engaging speakers. In Professors as academic leaders: Expectations, enacted professionalism and evolving roles (published in 2018), I argue that such wide remits spread professors too thinly, diluting their specialist skills and knowledge, and I propose a way of addressing the issue.