Crisis talks: part-timers pose threat to standards

Rise of casual labour in the academy is dangerous, conference hears. Phil Baty reports from Shanghai

November 12, 2009

The world is facing a "crisis of the academic profession" thanks to a growing reliance on part-time, badly paid and poorly qualified scholars, a conference has heard.

Speaking at the Third International Conference on World-Class Universities in Shanghai, Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College, warned that the crisis was one of the most pressing issues facing the academy today.

It threatened teaching and research quality in established universities and was holding back efforts to build new world-class institutions, he added.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after his lecture, "The past, present and future of world-class universities", Professor Altbach said: "A well-qualified academic profession is central to the success of a research university. Without a committed professoriate, a great university - or for that matter even an average one - is impossible."

Describing a crisis in higher education, he said that the average qualifications of academics worldwide had declined.

"Perhaps up to half of the world's college and university teachers now have only a bachelors degree, although good statistics are not available on this. A growing percentage are part-timers, poorly paid with little commitment to their university," he added.

Salaries are a particular issue for world-leading, research-led institutions, he said.

"Research universities have problems hiring and retaining the best and the brightest, in part because salaries in academia are nowhere comparable to what can be earned in the private sector - and the gap is growing," he said.

Workloads are becoming more burdensome as a result of increased bureaucracy and accountability, growing student numbers even in research universities, and the ever-increasing pressure on academics to publish more while obtaining research grants, Professor Altbach said.

"Even in research universities, there is a growing number of part-time and 'contract' professors who cannot hope for a stable career," he added.

"For countries seeking to build up their research universities, attracting high-quality staff is central - and often forgotten in the rush to world-class status. For established universities, neglecting their professors will inevitably result in a deterioration of quality in teaching and research."

Corporate values

Responding to a question from the conference floor about the rise of "corporate management", Professor Altbach said: "Corporate management is here to stay."

Although academics may not like it and must ensure that managers remain accountable, they have to adjust to the new status quo, he added.

"Large, increasingly complex institutions require corporate management," he said.

The professor suggested that some of the traditional models of university governance, where leaders are elected by faculty members, are "partly dysfunctional".

"In mega-universities, you need professional management," he said. "It is an adjustment you have to make as they have become large and exceedingly complex institutions."

Etienne Ze Amvela, vice-rector for internal control and evaluation at Cameroon's University of Yaounde 1, asked whether he was "insinuating that researchers can't manage their own work".

Background in management

Professor Altbach clarified: "I'm not arguing that people who do research are incompetent. What I am saying is that those of you put in positions of management need to know something about management."

Although referring to research which concluded that experienced academics make the best university leaders, he added that "at many levels of university management, you need professional managers who have a career path in management".

Earlier in the conference, speakers argued that government interference in the running of universities is damaging efforts to build world-class institutions.

As reported last week on www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, Jamil Salmi, the World Bank's tertiary education co-ordinator, argued in his keynote speech that institutional autonomy was the most vital ingredient for creating world-class universities.

He cited Barcelona, the world-leading football club, to make his point.

"If Barcelona had to operate under the same rules that governments impose on universities, would it still be world class?" he asked.

"What if Barcelona had to pay civil service salaries, was not able to keep the money it made from its games to attract world-class players, or could not get rid of players who did not perform? What if it was not the coach, but the minister for sport, who selected the team and gave the instructions?"

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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