Whither the Academic Profession?

The session will provide an update on CGHE Research Project 3.2, The Future Higher Education Workforce in Locally and Globally Engaged HEIs, drawing on material from the monograph that is in preparation, entitled Academic Staff Re-forming for a Changing World. It will review pointers for the future of the academic profession, highlighting a collective momentum towards more open-ended approaches to roles and careers. In doing so it will consider the relationship of individuals to disciplines and to professional practice associated with disciplines, reviewing the different degrees of embeddedness that individuals have within the profession, and the direction of travel for the profession as a whole. It will be suggested that in future this is likely to be influenced by greater interdisciplinary, a diversification and reshaping of disciplines, and an expanding hinterland of individuals, opening up academic activity to wider purposes at the same time as expanding professional selfhood. Drawing on two phases of interviews in eight UK higher education institutions between 2018 and 2020, the drift towards more open-ended approaches to roles and careers will be illustrated by a model demonstrating shifts in the professional formation of academic staff. It will be concluded that skills such as self-promotion, seeking and recognising opportunities, and networking, are increasingly evident in managing complex academic roles and career paths.

The concept of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ institutional ‘economies’ will also be introduced as a metaphorical frame to refer to the production, exchange and consumption of academic or associated activity, to which a value is ascribed. The formal institutional economy can be said to be represented by, for example, contracts of employment, promotion and progression criteria, performance management and review, disciplinary and departmental affiliations, and work allocation models; and the informal institutional economy to be based on understandings that are not necessarily articulated, relating to, for example, the value of networks, mentorship, one-to-one advice, self-profiling, social media, personal disciplinary or allied interests, and work-life balance. While the formal economy is more visible and quantifiable, for example, via a measurable accumulation of publications, grants, teaching awards and management or ‘good citizenship’ roles, the informal economy is articulated via individual preferences, relationships, values and priorities, which, if recorded at all, may appear in personal development plans, which are likely to be confidential, and therefore hidden. Activity within the informal economy may, in turn, lead to individual and local accommodations within the formal economy and its associated structures, enabling practice to influence policy over time.

Drawing on the interviews, and a survey undertaken in five of the eight case study institutions during 2019, consideration will also be give to how the changes described play out in different institutional and international contexts. In particular, the results of the survey offered insights into whether previous experiences are indicators of current career trajectory and future career intentions. The session will explore options open to academics in a range of roles, including the aspiration to move from a teaching-only or research-only role to a combined teaching and research role, and/or a middle- or senior management role, in order to gain career advancement; as well as any intention to leave employment in higher education for the private, public or charitable sectors.