University careers aren’t what they used to be

Academics need to recognise that a linear career progression is no longer the norm, says William Locke

January 27, 2016

The growing pressures faced by universities have had an impact on academic careers. Changes to academic roles, contracts and career paths, along with increasing workloads, have created new challenges.

Yet in today’s competitive global environment, academic career opportunities are key to universities’ future success.

A report for the Higher Education Academy, written with colleagues at the UCL Institute of Education, investigates these challenges and proposes a number of solutions.

The total number of academic staff in the UK grew by nearly 4.5 per cent between 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) data. This is a huge jump compared with previous years, particularly given the economic crisis and the reduction of government funding for higher education.

Read more: Higher education workforce exceeds 400,000

However, the picture is more complicated than it seems. “Traditional” academic roles involving both teaching and research actually slightly declined in number and, for the first time, constituted a minority. Instead it was the rise of teaching-only and research-only contracts that accounted for the growth.

Teaching-only and research-only contracts may seem attractive to universities for a number of reasons. Universities face increasing pressure to achieve high REF (research excellence framework) rankings. There has also been a growing focus on teaching standards and the student experience, particularly with the imminent introduction of the teaching excellence framework. An academic workforce divided into specialist roles might promise more focused results, and help meet demands for improved efficiency.

Yet such changes have implications for academic careers and the professional development of staff. There is a perception that career options and opportunities are less important for those not in traditional teaching and research roles.

Furthermore, the advance of remote working in higher education has impacted on work-life patterns, and academic workloads are perceived to have substantially increased in the past 10-15 years. The most significant barrier to engaging with professional development opportunities faced by academics is a lack of time, and this problem is more acute for those on specialist contracts.

Read more: How many hours a week should academics work?

Academic career paths are also changing, and are far less stable than in the past. Early career academics often struggle to find secure employment and so are forced to take on fixed-term or part-time contracts (usually in specialist roles). Opportunities for career progression vary across different disciplines and universities. As a result, academics are increasingly moving to new positions – often to new subject areas – during the course of their careers. They are also moving into and out of jobs outside academia.

It is important for universities to understand these challenges and to adopt a holistic approach. Academic promotion should be seen to be based on wider criteria (including, for example, education, knowledge exchange and academic citizenship) to counter perceptions that universities focus principally on research and REF outputs.

Read more: Five cities, seven years: my life post-PhD

The opportunities available to academics must also reflect the increasing diversity of academic roles. Equal recognition and reward are key. A universal academic contract accommodating a number of different roles would allow more freedom. Academics would no longer be forced to follow a specialised career path but would instead have the opportunity to gain new experience and change direction.

A broader conception of academic career development could include informal and peer learning. Universities should also focus on building trust between managers and their staff to encourage feedback and use this to inform policy and practice.

Policymakers and sector bodies should consider how policies and funding arrangements will affect the career opportunities of academics. Will academia continue to be regarded as an attractive or viable career? The creation of a concordat for teaching roles, such as the existing concordat for researchers, could create more parity between teaching and research.

The HEA is the national body at the centre of professional development for academics who teach. It will continue to review the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), the nationally recognised framework for benchmarking success within higher education teaching and learning support, to ensure it reflects the diversity of academic roles and complements other professional frameworks.

The report also recommends that the HEA should continue to develop its engagement with university HR departments and Universities Human Resources (UHR). It is currently running a strategic enhancement programme with a group of institutions looking at career progression and staff transitions.

Academics themselves need to recognise that a linear career progression is no longer the norm. They should make the most of career development opportunities when they are available. Early career academics should consider whether a teaching-only or research-only role will provide the opportunities they seek to develop their research activity or gain teaching experience. 

Meeting these challenges is at the core of universities’ ability to survive and flourish, not just in a national system but, increasingly, in a global environment, where pressures and demands are even more complex.

William Locke is deputy director of the Centre for Global Higher Education and co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at UCL’s Institute of Education.

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