The Society for Research into Higher Education


Academic practice, identity and careers

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By Bruce Macfarlane

The word ‘traditional’ is possibly the most over-used term in the higher education discourse. In common with nearly all institutions that have endured for any substantial length of time, such as the Church of England or the Conservative Party, the University has been adroit at re-inventing itself. The latest re-imagining is that ‘traditional’ universities are research-led institutions. This myth has comparatively recent roots linked to the growth of an audit culture, expansion and stratification on an international basis, and academic performativity at an individual level. These trends have collectively re-shaped the nature of academic practice and identity over the last 50 years.

An insight into how priorities have changed among academics during the recent past is provided by Halsey and Trow’s seminal study, published in 1971, of a then still small and elite British higher education sector drawing on data gathered in the mid-1960s (at a time when the SRHE was being formed). They found that British academics were overwhelmingly oriented towards teaching rather than research. A mere 10 per cent were even ‘interested’ in research while just 4 per cent regarded research as their primary responsibility (Halsey & Trow, 1971). The study concludes that ‘elitist teachers’ constituted the dominant ‘academic type’ predominantly interested in teaching rather than research and opposed to the expansion of the system. Nor was it just British academics that saw their role as primarily about teaching rather than research. Writing about American academics as late as 1979, Logan Wilson asserted that even though ‘assigned teaching loads…normally allow ample time for research, the majority consider teaching to be more important than research’ (Wilson, 1979:234).

Very many articles in early issues of Studies in Higher Education, first published in 1976, focused on undergraduate teaching picking over very practical issues such as the use of lectures, examinations, and various forms of educational innovation. The language of this time was all about  ‘university teachers’. The virtual disappearance of this phrase in the modern lexicon tells us a lot about the way in which the subsequent separation of government funding for research and teaching has led to a radical shifting of academic priorities, part of an international trend evidenced by successive Changing Academic Profession surveys.

Analysis of the academic profession in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the campus radicalism of the previous decade, is sometimes characterized in terms of a division between the forces of conservatism and liberalism (Ladd and Lipset, 1975) or in attitudes towards the expansion of the higher education system (Halsey and Trow, 1971). Sadly today the very idea that the socio-political views of academics should be sought, let alone listened to, might seem at best, quaint or at worst, irrelevant. This is partly about the way in which the public role and status of the academic has shrunk.

The divisions today within the academic profession are more usually expressed in terms of contractual or stratified status: research or teaching contracts, tenured or untenured, full or part-time, and, the career critical division between those who have been submitted or omitted for national research audit exercises (eg PBRF in New Zealand, the RAE in Hong Kong or the REF in the UK). The expansion of higher education has not only led to increased inequality between students in a highly stratified sector. It has also had much the same effect for academics. The realities of casualization and the pressures of performativity have shaped a more inward-looking ‘academic profession’.

This inward turn marks not just the declining role of academics as public intellectuals but also the atomisation of academic practice and identity. This fragmentation or ‘unbundling’ of academic labour has resulted in the parceling of work into discrete and specialized niches. Only around a half of academics in the UK or Australia are now on ‘all round’ contracts involving teaching, research and service. This means that the other half are a disparate collection of para-professionals who might research OR teach OR, perhaps, manage. The line between an ‘academic’ and an ‘administrator’ is also fuzzying as part of this fragmentary process (Whitchurch, 2008).

Some of the early articles published in Studies in Higher Education essentially constituted personal reflections on what it means to be a university academic. They are part of a lost world of scholarly dialogue about academic identity. In ‘Reflections on Working in a University’, Adam Curle (the first professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford) makes no mention of phrases or agendas which might predominate if such a piece were to be penned today (eg ‘workload’, ‘impact case study’, ‘research grant’, etc). Instead, the article provides a critical reflection on his own development from ‘middle class English academic, subtly conscious of status, class, and colour, believing – albeit criticizing – the values of western civilization…’ (Curle, 1977:10) to a later realization that his ‘attitude toward students had the same ominiscient superiority that had tainted my attitude towards people in the countries where I had worked on development problems.’ (p 11). Such a candid self-analysis is all too rare today as modern para-professionals, including full professors, scurry around meeting the demands of a performative culture.

Today Curle’s idiosyncratic meanderings would probably face instant rejection from Studies in Higher Education given its lack of a ‘methodology’ section, empirical evidence or other sufficiently respectable social scientific clothing. Such conventions now predominate and have positively contributed to achieving the hope expressed by Tony Becher, in his opening editorial in the first issue of Studies in 1976, for higher education to ‘constitute as valid a field of intellectual enquiry as can any specialized discipline’ (Becher, 1976:2). Yet, at the same time, much of the scholarly dialogue from the 1970s and early 80s reminds us what has been lost. These authors addressed a key question too rarely considered today: what does it mean to be an academic?


Becher, T. (1976) Editorial, Studies in Higher Education, 1:1, 1-2.
Curle, A. (1977) Reflections on Working in a University, Studies in Higher Education, 2:1, 9-13.
Halsey, A.H. and Trow, M. (1971) The British Academics, Faber & Faber, London.
Ladd, E.C. and Lipset, S.M. (1975) The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics, McGraw-Hill, New York & London.
Whitchurch, C. (2008) Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education, Higher Education Quarterly, 62:4, 377-396.
Wilson, L. (1979) American Academics, Oxford University Press, New York.

Bruce Macfarlane is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southampton. Bruce is also co-editor of the SRHE’s new journal, Policy Reviews in Higher Education and a member of the SRHE Research & Development Committee. 

Author: SRHE News Blog

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

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