August 8, 2013, by Tara de Cozar

Technician – and proud!

The blog post below first appeared on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network last week. Written by Kelly Vere, a senior technician at the University, it outlined the technician’s lot and painted a picture of an invisible layer of University and research sector employees of whom little is heard. But it’s very clear that, without them, the whole system would swiftly fall apart. I love KElly’s voice – I hope we hear more from her, and her fellow technicians at this institution and beyond.

I think this post is great. It’s a reminder of the diversity of roles necessary to ensure a University runs smoothly. There’s people that tend the grounds and clean the offices, the admissions staff that take care of the admin of enrolling thousands of students from all over the world every year. there’s the people that design the prospectuses (prospecti?) and the people who secure big European research grants. And there’s the technicians who help students, support academics, design and conduct experiments, build equipment and generally make projects happen. They might not be classed as research or academic staff, but the roles they play are key to the world-changing research that’s done every single day at this and other institutions. Sorry to get ranty, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of this in a research context every now and then…

So – three cheers for the technical (and other non-academic) staff at the University. We couldn’t do it without you. 

The original post can still be read – and commented on – on the Guardian website.

Also, when I read this I also thought of another key technician at UoN. Neil Barnes is a senior technician in the School of Chemistry and he’s a key member of the team which produces the award-winning Periodic Table of Videos. Maybe we can get some technician appreciation going in the comments. Let us know who makes your research life easier!

In defence of the university technician

Technicians are often a department’s most experienced fixture, says Kelly Vere – so why are we still invisible to the sector?

This month has been a good one. I’ve had my first ever scientific book chapter published, taught an excellent cohort of students in a lab class, had a paper accepted in an international journal, become a teaching fellow of the Higher Education Academy and was invited to give a seminar at another university – in California.

This may read like just an average month in academia. But, I’m not an academic – I’m a university technician. Have I surprised you? I’m not unique. There are 20,680 technicians working in universities in England and we make a crucial contribution to research and teaching activities.

Alongside the provision of essential traditional technical duties, we also present at international conferences, publish research papers, teach, lecture, even convene degree modules and mark students’ work. Given the increasing pressures on our academic colleagues, it’s hardly surprising that the technical role has diversified so much over the years.

I’ve been a technician since the age of 18 and admittedly, I didn’t even know the role existed until I saw the job advertised. I was looking for any position that would fund a part time degree and fell into a junior technical post by accident. From day one I loved it.

Fourteen years later and now a senior technician, I’m fortunate that’s still the case. I love the diversity, breadth and frankly the sheer randomness of my role. Every day is different and I get a real buzz from it, whether it’s finally getting that all-important result or the look of realisation on a student’s face when they eventually grasp a scientific concept or technique.

When I started out in 1999, I discovered that technicians are often the first port of call for both staff and students. Amid the frequent turnover of research staff, it’s the technician who’s the reassuringly permanent fixture in an academic department, equipped with a wealth of knowledge and expertise that you won’t find elsewhere.

Beyond the department, however, technical staff are often invisible to all but their immediate co-workers. There are countless examples of this invisibility on a local level: advertisements for hall wardens that specify administrators/academics only; that initial meeting regarding departmental mergers that neglected to mention the 100+ technicians affected; the lack of technical representation at a senior management level in most universities. The full extent of our contribution isn’t always formally recognised and so there are limited development opportunities.

But it’s not just locally, it’s nationally too. Technicians rarely make higher education news, are notably absent in sector wide award ceremonies, are not featured in the National Student Survey – the list goes on. Is it that we have nothing to offer or do we just fall under the radar?

It’s hard to define us. There’s no such thing as a typical university technician because the job title encompasses many disciplines – from art to zoology – and many grades – from those employed to undertake basic, essential duties to those with specialist expertise. Inevitably this causes communication problems between ourselves, between departments, between HEIs and with external agencies.

We’re a hard group to pin down in a sector that is dominated by many well defined occupations. Maybe technicians get lost in the system. But if the university technician is not seen as important to higher education, why would young people aspire to the role?

In 2011 the UK Commission for Employment and Skills identified a shortage of technicians across all sectors, estimating that the UK would require an additional 450,000 technicians by 2020. Technical skills are vital for the UK economy and technicians in higher education have a double contribution to make, both driving innovation (through knowledge transfer activities) and educating technicians of the future through theUniversity Technical Colleges initiative.

A professional registration scheme has been launched for technical staff working across science, engineering and technology to ensure recognition and development. If quality standards can be linked to future funding – as the Roberts report did for research staff – it will ensure universities invest in our development.

Times are changing for technicians. The HEA now formally recognises the technicians’ contribution to the teaching and learning experience through its annual Technician of the Year award launched earlier this year. It also encourages technical staff to gain accreditation through the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) in the same way as their academic colleagues.

So, it’s an exciting moment to be a technician. The opportunities are there for us to gain voice, visibility, recognition and support. To my fellow technicians I say: we must engage. Let’s take ownership of our profession, make ourselves heard and actively seek accreditation and recognition for our roles. To stakeholders both within and outside our universities: please recognise our talents, invest in our development, utilise our skills and listen. We have so very much to contribute.

Kelly Vere is a senior technician in life sciences and engineering at the University of Nottingham – follow her on Twitter @kellyvere

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