Technicians have long been a hidden workforce within universities. When people outside the academy have any idea what they do, their assumption is usually that they “just clean test tubes and put equipment away”. Yet throughout my technical career, I have never met anyone with such a limited job description.
In fact, those working in research are often at the cutting edge of their fields, operating and maintaining multimillion-pound instruments, working on drug discovery projects or training research students how to use equipment. Others, like myself, are involved in teaching and may have more contact time with students than any single lecturer. Most of us have multiple roles within our departments and faculties, but one thing we all have in common is a burning passion for the practical side of our chosen disciplines.
Recently, we have had to rise to a new challenge. During the pandemic, technical staff have been one of the few groups allowed on to campuses: some have been involved in developing tests for Covid-19, some providing practical classes for medical and science courses and others making personal protective equipment.
In the UK, this workforce has started to become more visible thanks to initiatives such as the Technician Commitment. Yet despite all the exciting and rewarding work technicians do, there are still problems growing and recruiting talent that is reflective of local populations. Action on improving access for students from under-represented groups is well documented, and support for aspiring BAME professors is in place. But there is no equivalent for technicians.
In fact, a 2020 survey by the National Technician Development Centre UK found that only 0.7 per cent of higher education technical staff come from a black ethnic background and 2.8 per cent from an Asian background. These figures fall disappointingly short of the make-up of the UK population, according to the 2011 census, but what is more shocking is when you compare them to the areas local to the universities surveyed. The number of technicians who identify as black was a staggering 60 per cent lower than in those populations, for instance.
The problem is not just about ethnicity: it is strongly linked to class, too. BAME households in the UK are twice as likely to live in poverty compared with white households, according to the Social Metrics Commission. And any young person from a less advantaged background is unlikely to aspire to a technical career, in part because they don’t know what technicians do; statistics show that in the more deprived areas surrounding universities, parents of young children are unlikely to have jobs in science and engineering.
But if young people can see themselves as hairdressers or beauticians, why not lab technicians? The precise mixing of chemicals to dye hair or perform skin treatments are the same skills used by technicians in labs all over the world. And workshop technicians use the same skills as car mechanics.
To their local communities, universities should offer more than just higher education. They should not merely be in the business of encouraging local children to study subjects they are passionate about after leaving school. They should also offer and publicise alternative routes into exciting and rewarding careers.
The tools are already in place. Many UK universities have apprenticeship schemes already running – a well-trodden route into a technical career. However, how many schools from the local area know about the schemes and who they are open to? Universities should encourage technical staff to have dialogue with local schools to raise awareness, and to offer work experience to young people interested in this type of career.
One thing I am certain of, though, is that this should not fall into the “outreach” category. It is about creating a technical workforce that mirrors our local environment, not hitting an arbitrary number of students that we have engaged with once and then forgotten about. It needs to be a sustained relationship between universities, schools and students.
In England, one of the most exciting tools universities could use is T levels, the new post-16 qualification aimed at young people with a desire to go into a technical career. Launched last September, these not only offer a taught component at a further education college equivalent to three A levels, but also come with a minimum nine-week work placement. University management should work with FE colleges to provide as many placements as possible. Indeed, this could go beyond labs and workshops to also take in building services, IT and media teams.
Reaching out to our neighbours will not only improve our institutions and cities for the better. More importantly, it has the potential to inspire young people to dream of careers that they didn’t think people like them could ever have. Such a life-changing impact ought to be at the heart of universities’ exercise of social responsibility.
Author Bio: Mike Hughes is the teaching laboratories manager in the department of chemistry at the University of Manchester.