Fixed or Flexible?

Bruce Baskerville, PHA NSW & ACT Chair, posts some ideas about pathways between Professional, Associate and Graduate membership of the association.

I flagged the question of pathways between different levels of membership in the PHA NSW/ACT in my annual report. Now, I would like to encourage more discussion among members to assist the committee in its deliberations on this issue. I hope readers will forgive the rather lengthy exposition that follows, which was first published in Members Circular No 16, 25 August 2014.

Currently, we have three membership categories of Professional, Associate and Graduate. These categories are linked to varying annual subscription levels, and are informally associated with the levels of fees set out in the Australian Council of Professional Historians  schedule of fees.

There is some movement between the categories, mainly with associates ‘upgrading’ to the professional level, usually as their experience and qualifications grow so that they meet the criteria for the professional category. But we need to give consideration to other types of change, such as:

  • members who enter at the associate level and never change their status even when qualified to do so
  • members in the professional category who retire, and no longer make a living as a historian but wish to stay involved with the PHA
  • members in any category who may temporarily withdraw from actively working as a historian but who may return to actively working after some time (which may be several years)
  • members who move overseas and who may not then be actively working in Australia, but may do so at some time in the future.

The 2013 membership survey indicated that 80 per cent of respondents were in the professional category, 12 per cent associate and 7 per cent graduate. Since joining, 18.5 per cent had ‘upgraded’ their membership category and 21 per cent had not. The remaining 60 per cent felt the question was not applicable to them.

The responses to a ‘why not’ question by the 21 per cent who had not ‘upgraded’ are illuminating. Twenty-six per cent said it was ‘not necessary/no incentive/form too hard’; 13 per cent said their circumstances had not changed; 20 per cent did not have the qualification/eligibility to do so; 6.5 per cent had tried and been rejected and another 6.5 per cent did not know they could ‘upgrade’.  One member was in the process of ‘upgrading’.  Two members said the ‘boys club mentality’ of the PHA deters them/they don’t have ‘friends in the club’, and another felt the question was ‘superfluous’.  Three members specifically stated that the higher membership subscription was a deterrent to ‘upgrading’.

Similar questions have arisen in past years and were again aired during the 2014/15 renewal of subscriptions. This points to the complexity of how best to categorise our membership and the need to consider questions like the following:

  •  is it a desirable or necessary objective that all members should eventually reach the professional category?
    • Should there be any time limit on how long a member remains in a graduate or associate category?
  • should there be a ‘retired’ or ‘emeritus’ membership category?
    • And do historians (especially those working freelance) ever really permanently retire or do they move between periods of greater and lesser work activity depending on their circumstances and needs at any given time? Our objectives now refer to a “life-long career as a historian”, which suggests more than a simple trajectory from graduate to stable and permanent employment to retirement, followed by a few years reminiscing on the verandah as the sun slowly sets.
  • do the lower annual subscription rates for graduate and associate categories discourage members from ‘‘upgrading’’ to the professional category, or conversely encourage members to ‘downgrade’ from the professional to associate category?
    • Is this a problem: the survey indicates only three people out of 232 respondents thought so?
    • Should there be a more flexible approach to the categories that allow a member to move between them depending on their working status at any time? For example, a member might move from professional to associate for some years while parenting, then back to professional while actively working, then back to associate while working overseas for several years, or perhaps to deal with prolonged health issues, then back to professional upon return or recovery, then back to associate once retired – or semi-retired, possibly moving back to professional if needed at various times.
  • should we talk about ‘upgrades’ and ‘downgrades’, or simply ‘changes’, in moving between membership categories?
  • should there be a direct link between continuing professional development and changing membership categories?
  • should voluntary or community work, such as being a member of the PHA committee or a PHA representative on an external body, be acknowledged in any way in defining membership categories or eligibility?
  • what role or value do the different categories have for members in their own ‘branding’ or presentation of themselves to potential clients or employers and to the broader public as professional historians?
  • is the process of ‘‘upgrading’’ too difficult or unclear?

I don’t think there is a correct answer to any of these questions, at least not yet. But with our profession, even our vocation, evolving in parallel with the changing nature of work, we need to pay attention to these matters and work out what’s best for our association. Your committee members are keen to hear members’ perspectives, so please don’t be shy to air your views either here on the blog or by contacting us direct at .


4 thoughts on “Fixed or Flexible?”

  1. Hello Bruce,
    Thank you for your careful exposition of the issues faced by the committee in considering possible changes to pathways between membership categories. I’m not sure that I can add much, but rather assure you that I have been thinking about it. I’m one who has been in the category of graduate member since my application was accepted in 2007. Mine was a late career application and the category has undoubtedly provided recognisable accreditation, which I’m glad to maintain. The graduate status was granted after the few commissioned history projects I have undertaken were completed. I was already researching and writing my self-funded book “Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney”, published in early 2013. The critical response has been gratifying, but sales have been slow, so it will be a long time before my investment may be recouped. This would be my only source of professional income, so I am reluctant to pay more than $65 annually to maintain PHA membership. This is certainly not saying that I think fees are too high in any category. I don’t. I am certainly glad to attend CPD workshops from time to time and maintain a blog “Western Sydney Frontier” to promote the book and the continuation of stories of arts activism in western Sydney.
    Even if I were granted professional historian status, I’m not sure it would offer any greater benefit, though if it became mandatory after the committee’s consideration, I think I would accept it.
    I’m afraid this response only continues the dilemma of what to do, but I hope it is of some use.
    Thanks to you and the committee for all your careful review.

  2. Perhaps the membership categories could take into account income. The Australian Society of Archivists has Professional members paying full membership but also Professional members (retired/concessional) who earn less than $35,000 paying a reduced rate. There are also reduced rates for the Associate, Associate (concession) and Associate (student) categories for the ASA. That way a member can still retain professional membership status while paying a reasonable fee relating to their income. There would be no need to “downgrade” due to your circumstances at the time nor to be concerned about financial implications of “upgrading” and the members list online would not need to say what fee you were paying only that you were Professional, Associate or Graduate.

  3. It’s good to consider these issues but I think some that Bruce raised have never occurred. For example I’ve never heard of anyone ‘downgrading’. While it might be a sound idea to vary membership categories as he has suggested depending on what phase of life a member is at, s could be a nightmare to administer. In relation to retired members,PHA Vic has some experience of this – not sure but I don’t think this is viewed favourably there. We can find out more if this is ever considered in NSW.

  4. Judith Nissen comments: Wearing my hat as Professional Historians Australia President and former ACPHA Accreditation Secretary … One way of resolving some of these issues is for PHAs to break the link between membership fees (the amount you pay annually to be a member of a particular PHA) and accreditation level (a national standard which depends on qualifications and experience). Membership fees would be set by a PHA according to whatever criteria it wishes. Not the complete or ideal solution, but it may be worth considering?

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