Working in Higher Education
Working in Higher Education is a collection of articles that examines the contemporary experience of staff work in higher education in the United Kingdom from a range of social science perspectives. By drawing on many disciplines, the editor has sought to avoid what he describes as the "unduly familiar" and narrow single disciplinary approach that characterizes so much of the current literature on higher education in the UK and abroad.
Cuthbert has assembled the twelve articles in his collection into three main categories: the workers, their work, and their work context. Chapters on the "workers" describe the relatively new national statistical database in the UK (HESA-Higher Education Statistics Agency); the neglect of best practices in human resources management; the need for attention to financial rewards and policy; and the lack of attention in higher education to the literature of career patterns and trajectories. The "work" chapters include the nature of non-academic work, such as the work of libraries; new academic formats such as work-based learning; the changing boundaries of responsibility for academic work between professors and a professionalized support staff; and challenges to effective time management and quality time in open-ended research environments. "Work context" chapters emphasize occupational culture -- the complex web of underlying assumptions, attitudes, and values that characterize higher education. Within this category, authors discuss the validity of the idea that there is a single academic profession that crosses national boundaries, disciplines, and rank; the different concepts of access to higher education; and what academics take for granted about the higher education sector, including the view that work is not confined to a physical campus location or must be done during office hours.
There is a wealth of material on academic careers in this volume, even for educators working in universities in other countries. Literature reviews by each chapter author and the editor draw on North American as well as British scholarship and are informative sources of contemporary methodology and substance in the study of higher education work and careers. For example, Gaby Weiner's piece, "Which of Us Has a Brilliant Career?" begins by comparing conventional and more recent conceptualizations of "career" and concludes with an autobiographical example in which she presents her own career experience as a reflection "not only [of] changes in university conditions but the different life chances of female and male workers" (p. 65).
As a professional staff person, I think my favorite chapter has relevance for professional staff working in North American higher education and possibly for many others who have worked or studied in universities everywhere. Entitled "Work's Committees," it is a humorous and carefully crafted critique of higher education's habit of doing a lot of its work through the structure of democratic committees. The chapter's author, Ian McKay, has compiled a series of ridiculous but familiar committee "moments" such as one that begins, "It had been a long meeting" (p. 122). These "moments" are introduced with quotations and references to various scenes from Shakespeare's play Macbeth -- "Bloody business. . . . All is but toys. . . . Bring me no more reports. . . . These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so it will make us mad" -- to make readers reflect on committee work, the many functions of committees, and the sometimes not so obvious or hidden purposes committees serve. In addition, McKay uses parody to describe the various styles of committee chairs and members (including the machinations of alternative leaders) to suggest the possibility of some devious reasons for chairs' selection of meeting places and seating arrangements and to focus attention on the importance of process in meetings. McKay concludes with the tongue in cheek suggestion that we need to add two more stages -- "transforming and mourning" -- to Tuckman's well-known stages of small group process: forming, storming, norming, and performing. In other words, though good committees do exist, the many committees that we have in universities ought to be reviewed regularly and, when necessary, disbanded.
Taken together, the articles in Working in Higher Education are an interesting and informative foray into the world of higher education in the United Kingdom. There is a lot of material here that describes trends and problems in higher education today. The book raises challenges for both scholars and practitioners of higher education and, perhaps most importantly, given the pressures and conflicts in higher education, permits a reader the occasional laugh while learning.