Can we still speak of there being an academic profession?by Michael Shattock

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Can we still speak of there being an academic profession?

Michael Shattocka a Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK

Published online: 12 Dec 2014.

To cite this article: Michael Shattock (2014) Can we still speak of there being an academic profession?, History of Education: Journal of the History of Education Society, 43:6, 727-739, DOI: 10.1080/0046760X.2014.964008

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Can we still speak of there being an academic profession?

Michael Shattock*

Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK (Received 7 January 2014; accepted 3 September 2014)

This article seeks to compare the characteristics of the academic profession as described historically by Perkin in 1969 against the definitions of a profession derived from the published views of sociologists and others. It then measures the position of the academic community today against these definitions: a common range of professional tasks and competences, representation by a membershipled organisation, participation in institutional governance, a role in determining professional development and conditions of service, powers of self-regulation, and exclusive control of the knowledge and expertise it professes. The article goes on to analyse how the characteristics of twenty-first century academic life measure up to these provisions and concludes that in many ways they now fall substantially short to the extent that in a strict sense it is no longer possible to claim that academics belong to an academic profession.

Keywords: profession; academic profession; governance; conditions of service; self-regulation; control of knowledge


Forty years ago the History of Education Society published the proceedings of its annual conference held at Didsbury College in December 1972, entitled Education and the Professions. The book was published by Methuen for the Society and was edited by

T.G. Cook.1 It contained four essays the last of which, contributed by Professor Perkin, then of Lancaster University, was on higher education. In it he traced the origins of the academic profession back to the medieval guilds but he concluded with the statement: … there can be no doubt that university teaching is now nothing like the tiny isolated and dispersed and almost irrelevant occupation it was at the beginning of this century [that is, 1900]. It has become not merely a but the profession towards which all the rest must look for the supply of new recruits and of new ideas on which the future of our society depends.2

Four years previously, Perkin had published Key Profession, which combined a history of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) with an account of the development of the academic profession;3 the combination reflected the perceived identity of interest of the two bodies. In it he argued that: *Email: 1Thomas Goldie Cook, ed., Education and the Professions (London: Methuen for the History of Education Society, 1973). 2Harold James Perkin, ‘The Professionalisation of University Teaching, in Education and the

Professions, ed. Thomas Goldie Cook (London: Methuen, 1973), 82–3. 3Harold James Perkin, Key Profession: The History of the Association of University Teachers (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969). © 2014 Taylor & Francis

History of Education, 2014

Vol. 43, No. 6, 727–739,

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University teaching … has become, largely during the present century, the key profession in modern society, in the sense of the profession which educates the other professions or the principal agent in the process of selection of the key posts in industry, commerce, government and the other power structures.4

He claimed that it was the key profession in two other senses: it embraced the whole of knowledge and skills and provided a ‘general, unifying background of common cultural education’ and it was the sole profession which had ‘the time, the means and the skill not merely to make new discoveries … but to do society’s fundamental thinking for it’.5

We need to set these bracing statements into context: they were made at roughly the end of what Lord Annan later identified as the universities’ ‘Golden Age’, roughly 1945–1975, and essentially brought to an end by the suspension of the