07 Dec 2017

The reality for academic staff in Europe

The breadth and depth of the changes experienced by the higher education sector in recent years is unprecedented. Responding to these changes requires international higher education professionals, including academics, to work together across their institution. To facilitate these collaborations and undertake studies on education issues common to countries across Europe, the European Commission initiated the Eurydice Network. Their recent research report, and related brief, summarised in this post, provide an important insight on what it means to be an academic staff member in Europe.
 
As the process of internationalisation has evolved and become a centrally important feature of higher education, the higher education sector itself has grown, diversified, modernised and been subject to ever-increasing demands. In Europe, for example, as the structural reforms brought on by the Bologna Process take effect, student enrolments have increased exponentially. New types of students, programmes, institutions, modes of delivery, as well as funding and management models, have come to the fore. These changes have compelled all higher education professionals and policymakers to re-evaluate fundamental questions: What, for example, is a student? What should a high-quality student experience involve? How should students be taught and learn? What does this all mean for academic staff?
 
The European Commission’s recent Eurydice Network report, entitled ‘Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Academic Staff – 2017’, aims to address some of these questions. Based on data collected from academic staff working in 35 European countries, and supplemented by information from other sources, including UNESCO/OECD/Eurostat (UOE), this report investigates what the changes taking place in the higher education sector have meant for the roles, characteristics, expectations and status of academic staff working in the continent.
 
Understanding these issues, which have not been sufficiently researched in the past, is particularly important for international higher education professionals. This is both because of the equally important role that academic staff members play in the success of internationalisation of higher education strategic initiatives, and because “the reform and modernization of Europe’s higher education depends on the competence and motivation of teachers and researchers”.

Who are academic staff?

The report shows that there are considerable differences in how national systems categorise academic staff, the employment contracts offered, and the definition of teaching or research tasks within roles. No two systems are identical, and there does not seem to be any relationship between these structural elements and the size of the higher education system. For example, Estonia and Latvia, two neighbouring countries with similar demographics, provide an interesting indication of this. In Estonia, 12 main categories of academic staff are reported, while in Latvia there are only seven. In addition, in Latvia, all categories of academic staff are employed on fixed-term contracts, while in Estonia, staff in 10 of the 12 categories have the possibility of agreeing to permanent contracts.

The importance of international staff

The recruitment and retention of high-quality foreign faculty members has long been a central goal of many national and institutional internationalisation strategies. However, it is clear that there is considerable diversity in how important and/or successful these strategies are in different countries. Numbers and proportion of international academic staff is one indication. For example, in Spain, just over 2% of academic staff are foreign nationals, which compares to 27% in the UK and 44% in Switzerland.

Improving the gender imbalance

While there has been an upward growth in the number of female academic staff, women still make up only 40% of the total population, and are particularly under-represented in higher ranking or more prestigious positions. In order to respond to this, 18 national systems have developed national measures or targets to promote an improve gender balance, including Belgium, Malta and the Netherlands. There are success stories – in Latvia, for example, women already account from more than half of academic staff.

Recruiting and retaining younger staff

In a number of countries, including Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, more than 40% of the national academic staff are within the ages of 50–64 years, compared to an EU average of 31%. The fact that all of these countries also show a relatively low proportion of academic staff under the age of 35 also indicates that these countries are having difficulties in the generational renewal of its academic staff community. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that 12 of the 16 academic staff trade unions that took part in the study reported that their country is currently experiencing a large number of academic staff leaving the profession.

How are academics viewed nationally?

How public authorities view, and have top-level regulations for, academic staff also varies widely from country to country. In countries including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, a doctoral degree is required for certain academic staff, and top-level regulations regarding their pay exist. Some or all academic staff in these countries are classed as civil servants. However, academic staff in the UK are not considered civil servants, not subject to national pay guidelines, and are not required to have a doctoral degree. In addition, in about half of the 35 countries in the study, top-level regulations exist to define the workload of teaching staff, including the amount of time academics should allocate to teaching activities. In many countries, dedication to quality teaching does not necessarily correlate to higher esteem. Indeed, it is a common feature of higher education systems that academic and research progression of staff is rewarded with fewer teaching responsibilities.

Next steps

International collaboration and institutional partnership are now a key features of almost all internationalisation of higher education strategies. As such, and given the equally important role that academics staff play in all higher education systems, it is more important than ever before that international higher education professionals – who work with academics on a daily basis – have a more complete understanding of what it means to be an academic staff member working in Europe. The Eurydice Network report provides valuable information, underlining the fact that establishing rigorous systems to collect information on employment and working conditions of academics and other professional staff in higher education, should be prioritised into the future.

 
Ross Hudson is Senior Knowledge Officer at the EAIE.