The Society for Research into Higher Education

Vicky Gunn

The bright new world of academic careers?

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Vicky Gunn

Scotland’s universities, like many in the rest of Europe, are busy trying to navigate the emergent waves relating to academic careers. New contractual systems are coming in like a Spring Tide, washing away previous obligations and replacing them with new ones, in some cases loosely and in others profoundly, tied to performance.  This performance is not just in a general category (eg research or teaching or service) but across several categories (publications, grant income, teaching excellence, leadership, management, administration, esteem, knowledge exchange and impact.) 

Additionally, early career high fliers are being promised reductions in aspects of these categories in the hope that they will provide the disciplinary research leaders of the future. An elite group who have tenure-like contracts (but of course aren’t on a tenure track in reality, as there is no tenure legislation to protect them in Scotland or the rest of the UK for that matter) are growing in number within institutions. Such a trend is not Scotland’s alone and I was unsurprised to be able to attend research based sessions at the SRHE 2013 annual conference on: the changes to what is now referred to as the ‘higher education workforce’ (Locke, 2013); the organisational tensions generated by such developments (Geschwind & Jornesten, 2013); and, the perspectives of the happy elite (Ylijoki, 2013).


How this is playing out practically in Scotland is through the introduction of a range academic role pathways (researcher, researcher & teacher, university teacher), each of which have their own points of progression with evidence of outstanding activity increasingly structurally embedded. The monolithic idea of a ‘traditional academic’, whether ever relevant, is surely moribund now. 


For me, as a Director of a Learning and Teaching Centre in an institution undergoing such change, the pressing strategic question is: how can institutions develop appropriate and of equal standing forms of continuing professional development and support as well as recognition for those who are outstanding within their different pathways? An additional but related question is: how can we do this in a manner that acknowledges those who excel as part of collaborative engagements as well as our heroic individuals? This latter question is of particular importance where teacher track pathways have been devised, as the orientation of those primarily interested in teaching can often be towards teaching teams rather than purely for individual teacher prowess.


Indeed, this latter question perhaps hints at a bigger paradox in which we are enmeshed. This relates to the tension between the need to develop individually relevant, career pathway tailored, and personalised forms of academic professional continuing development at the same time as needing to maintain teaching quality that in part both represents and drives the university as a collective organisation. This is particularly the case with teaching, in which threshold and excellent quality standards need to be maintained across each career, regardless of apparent personal relevance at a given time. In the debates about what early career researchers on elite tracks might or might not need, the dominance of the personalised process has started to flourish, regardless of over a decade of quality processes centred on ‘raising the teaching game’ across a given institution.  The jury is out on whether, ultimately, personalisation of academic CPD will actually bear teaching enhancement fruits far more flavoured and wholesome than centralised, nationally driven quality agendas. From the location of a centralised teaching development unit, however, a significant  disruption is occurring and it is clear that the way universities have configured CPD for their academics in Scotland is in flux.


The appropriate sailing of these troubled waters is critical because the directions in which we point the next generation of academics impacts not only on what their universities will be in terms of the disciplines represented, but also how they are viewed externally. At such a time leaders in policy, research, institutions, disciplines, and student groups are all crucial.  And, just to add wind to the waves, controlled yet innovative design thinking (if it isn’t an oxymoron) which involves all of these leaders in a mutual process of decision-making is essential. 


The trouble is, the inner dynamic of the university as an organisation has always had to balance the paradoxical demands generated between research, teaching, professional education, and intellectual cultures. Such a dynamic is perhaps behind the institution’s longevity. Now, though, those strands of inherent paradox are being multiplied through the rapid generation and adoption of contradictory internal and external agendas designed to manage the anxieties of an increasingly complex environment. Out of this mixed messages, demoralisation, self-referential cycles, and systematic oppositional positions can come to dominate the conversations within the institutions, making the possibility of collaborative leadership which includes the groups outlined above almost impossible. The bright new generation of academics in Scotland will require leaders who can manage to help their representative groups explore the tensions such paradoxes bring without rushing to resolve them. Of course, the additional paradox is: what means have we to develop such collaborative leaders in an environment in which personalized, individual excellence owns the highest status?



Geschwind, L & Jornesten, A (2013) ‘Tenure track tensions: academic career paths in a deregulated sector’ Presentation delivered at the SRHE Annual Conference 2013, Newport, Wales.

 Locke, W (2013) ‘Austerity and the academy in England and internationally: market discipline

and the restructuring of the academic workforce’ Presentation delivered at the SRHE Annual Conference 2013, Newport, Wales.

 Ylijoki, O-H (2013) ‘Happy in academia – the perspective of academic elite’ Presentation delivered at the SRHE Annual Conference 2013, Newport, Wales.


SRHE member Dr Vicky Gunn is Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Glasgow. Follow her on Twitter: Vicky Gunn @StacyGray45.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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