It's the faculty, stupid!

Officials must not forget that staff are responsible for a university's success, says Philip G. Altbach

April 30, 2009

In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected to the White House in considerable part by emphasising the importance of the economy. His mantra - "It's the economy, stupid!" - emphasised this point. For higher education, the mantra should be: "It's the faculty, stupid!" No university can achieve success without well-qualified, committed academic staff. Neither an impressive campus nor an innovative curriculum will produce good results without great professors.

But higher education globally focuses on the "hardware" - buildings, laboratories and the like - at the expense of "software" - the people who make institutions successful. Look at the often-criticised university rankings. What do they measure? Key criteria include the numbers of Nobel prizewinners, the research productivity of professors, the grants obtained by faculty and the quality of the students. Facilities are less important.

But almost everywhere, academic staff are forgotten in the rush to cope with higher student numbers and deepening financial problems. If higher education is to succeed, "It's the faculty, stupid!" must become a rallying cry for universities worldwide.

It is depressing, but essential, to examine the status of the academic profession. In much of the world, half or more of the professoriate is approaching retirement. Too few PhD students are being produced to replace them, owing to an uncertain job market and financial constraints, and many postdocs decide to work outside academia. Countries with rapidly growing higher education systems are hardest hit: Vietnam, for example, requires 12,000 more academics each year to meet its expansion goals.

The rise of the part-time profession

To be most effective, professors need to be truly engaged in teaching and research. They must have full-time academic appointments and devote their attention exclusively to academic responsibilities and the institutions that employ them.

But the full-time professoriate is a dying breed. This shift is most visible in Latin America, home of the part-time "taxicab" professor, rushing between teaching jobs or classes and a second job in another profession. With the exception of Brazil, up to 80 per cent of the Latin American professoriate is employed part-time and paid a pittance. It is not surprising, then, that there are almost no Latin American universities among the world's top 500 higher education institutions.

In the US, only half of newly hired academics have full-time, tenure-track positions. The rest are poorly paid part-time contingent faculty. A new class of full-time contract teachers has grown in recent years as a way for universities to ensure flexibility in staffing. Tenure-track academic appointments now predominate mainly in elite institutions.

In most Eastern European countries, plus China, Vietnam and Uganda, universities now employ professors who have full-time appointments at other institutions. Salaries are low, and institutions expect faculty to earn extra funds to supplement their paltry pay cheques and, in some cases, subsidise the university's budget. At some Chinese universities, professors are expected to take consulting and other outside work. In other cases, universities set up additional degree-granting colleges and ask their staff to teach at those schools, too. Moreover, professors at state universities in much of the world help to staff the burgeoning private higher education sector by moonlighting.

The decline of a real full-time professoriate undermines higher education. If professors cannot devote attention to teaching and research, maintaining an academic culture and participating in the governance of their universities, quality will decline. As the saying goes, "penny wise and pound foolish".

The dumbing down of the professoriate

It is possible that up to half the world's university teachers have no degree beyond a bachelors. No one knows for sure.

What we do know is that the academic profession is growing rapidly, but facilities for advanced-degree study are not keeping up, nor are salaries sufficient to encourage the best and brightest to join the professoriate.

In China, the world's largest university system, only 9 per cent of the academic workforce has a doctorate (although this figure rises to 70 per cent in the top research institutions). Just 35 per cent of Indian academics hold doctoral qualifications. And in most developing countries, only staff at the most prestigious universities hold doctoral degrees. The expansion of graduate post-baccalaureate programmes has been identified as a global priority, but expansion has been slow because the demand for basic access is so great.

The pauperisation of the profession

Academia is no longer the destination of first choice for the best minds. A significant part of the problem is financial, because academic salaries have not kept up with remuneration for highly trained professionals in other fields. A recent study of academic salaries in 15 countries shows that, in the main, full-time academic staff can survive on their salaries. However, they do not earn much more than the average salary in their country. Relatively few of the most qualified young people undergo the rigorous education required for jobs in elite universities, and highly trained individuals frequently flee to higher-paying jobs in other professions, or, in the case of developing countries, leave for roles in Europe or North America.

The bureaucratisation of the professoriate

In the past, even if academics were not well paid, they enjoyed a good deal of autonomy and control over their teaching and research as well as their time. This situation has changed: in terms of accountability and assessment, the professoriate has lost much of its autonomy. Evaluations such as the UK's research assessment exercise and other accountability measures demand substantial time and effort, even if the value of much research work is difficult or impossible to measure accurately.

Universities have become more bureaucratic as they have grown and are more accountable to external authorities. Heavy bureaucratic control erodes a sense of academic community and, more generally, diminishes the faculty's traditional involvement in academic governance. The power of the professors, once dominant and sometimes used by them to resist change, has declined markedly in the age of accountability and bureaucracy.

What is to be done?

To restore the academic profession, it must again become a profession, with appropriate training, compensation and status. This means that academic programmes to provide masters and doctoral degrees must be expanded significantly. The rush towards part-time teaching must be ended and a sufficient cadre of full-time professors with appropriate career ladders appointed. Salaries must be sufficient to attract talented young scholars and to keep them.

In a differentiated academic system, not all professors will focus on research, which typically is still the gold standard in terms of status. Most academics mainly teach, and their workloads should reflect this. Although it is impossible to return to the days of unfettered autonomy and little evaluation of academic work, accountability and assessment can be done in ways that are appropriate to academia rather than serving as punitive exercises.

If there is any good news in this story, it is that academics enjoy what they are doing and feel a loyalty to the profession. The 1992 Carnegie study of the academic profession around the world found surprisingly high levels of satisfaction, and a similar tale was reported in the 2008 global report The Changing Academic Profession. Despite its problems, academic life has significant attractions. The challenge is to ensure that the profession is again seen by policymakers and the public as central to the success of higher education.

In the current environment, the media as well as some university administrators and many government officials are quick to identify the professoriate as the root of academia's problems. In fact, the opposite is true - academics are the root of the unprecedented success of higher education. There is always room for improvement, but professor-bashing will lead to neither reform nor greater productivity.

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