Definition of ‘technician’ in higher education: a suggestion

Technicians supporting research with health

The definition of ‘technician’ across Higher Education (HE) has been ambiguous, varied and leads to misunderstanding within organisations, especially when identifying the workforce by human resources.

Importantly, it can lead to a lack of technician community identity, recognition and cohesion. The Technician Commitment initiative has become a vehicle for signatory members to define technicians. HEaTED suggest the following definition to help organisations consider their own definition:

‘A person who is trained and or skilled in the techniques, tools, and technology of their subject, who provide the practical application of knowledge, including hands-on support in directly contributing to teaching and learning, research and enterprise activities.’

Universities in England employ over 30,000 technicians, which rises to over 65,000 if you include Scottish universities and research council institutions. Although the scope of the technical role and the skill level required varies, all technicians directly contribute expertise and skills to research teams, they support teaching, and engage in enterprise activities. Technician roles can be found in the subjects of science, technology engineering, mathematics, arts, design, media (music, and screen), IT and social sciences. In many HE institutions (HEIs), the technical workforce belong to a job family category called ‘Technicians Group’, separate from academic, administration and professional services (eg estates and facilities, library, HR, marketing and procurement functions) workforce.

Technicians are typically responsible for operating, servicing and maintaining university facilities. This can range from laboratories, clinical settings, workshops, studios, outdoor leaning environments and research facilities. They solve problems, plan, organise, manage and lead resources; monitor experiments, governance and compliance processes and contribute to the development, improvement and delivery of products and services along with academic staff.

Technicians with a focus in their careers not only see their roles as aspirational but also a stepping stone to leadership, management and specialist roles in education and beyond. They continually strive to improve their work and the services their departments offer to ensure an enhanced experience for learners and researchers alike. However, some can view a technician role negatively, as someone on a low grade, possibly unskilled, lacking in ambition and simply providing a ‘helper role’. This perception is not helped, given that in some HEIs the term ‘laboratory attendants’ are used in job titles, leading to a negative perception and culture.

By clarifying the definition of a technician, HEIs can more effectively support the technical workforce, provide appropriate job titles and build a sense of community and belonging. Technicians can actively build a network that is enabled and empowered to contribute to the critical activities of teaching, research and enterprise. It all starts with how an organisation defines its technicians.

Date of article: 24th May 2018