Life and work in academia


Life and work in academia


Citation: NordSTEP 2016, 2: 34001 -

Copyright: © 2016 M. Elmgren et al. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 29 November 2016


The significance of higher education for individuals and society as well as its size and complexity justify that research on higher education is recognised and developed. In this special issue, we focus on academic citizenship and academic work. Life and work in academia has mostly been described in terms of teaching and research, personalised by academic staff (Boyer, Altbach, & Whitelaw, 1994). These core activities are related to historically developed missions of the university embedded in values like academic freedom and professional autonomy. Another distinction focuses on the difference between the core and the support system developed to enable teaching, research and public outreach. Academics may very well be engaged in one or several of the university missions and involved in both core activities and support systems. Consequently, there are potentially many complex relations within universities as well as in the interplay between the university and different sectors of society. Still a large number of activities integral to academic life are often left out and to some degree they appear as less visible aspects of the academic culture. Many of these activities can be related to those duties (Kennedy, 1997), responsibilities or virtues of academic faculty that Bruce Macfarlane (2007) includes in academic citizenship. Academics perform services with differing status – to several overlapping communities – public, discipline-based/professional, institutional, collegial and student community (cf Gordon & Whitchurch, 2010).

With massification, marketisation and managerialism, higher education institutions face new situations that challenge academic work and our understanding of it. Even though research on academic work has increased, it is still rather restricted. In an extensive literature review, edited by Kehm and Teichler (2013), several dimensions structuring the academic profession were identified: blurred boundaries of professional identities and the emergence of hybrid professionals overlapping academic and administrative tasks and functions; decommissioning of the academic profession since the 1990s; tensions between academic and managerial values in a context of changing governance of higher education; challenges faced by the traditional structure of academic career paths (Henningsson, Jörnesten, & Geschwind, in press); internationalisation of academic markets and careers; challenges in terms of quality, societal relevance and research excellence calling for new forms of academic work and collaboration with external stakeholders (cf. Fumasoli, Goastellec, & Kehm, 2015).

In this special issue of Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, several aspects of stability and change within academia are elaborated on by scholars from various disciplines, scientific fields and institutions from three Nordic countries. Consequently, a number of theoretical perspectives, methodologies and data are being employed. At the same time, there are similarities between the Nordic countries, even beyond European agreements. All Nordic countries are small and open, highly dependent on exchange with the world outside, not least in higher education. They offer free education and all have a high percentage of the population in doctoral education (Elmgren, Forsberg, Lindberg-Sand, & Sonesson, 2016). Furthermore, the Nordic welfare states have in common a tradition of the state as a ‘guardian angel’ of national higher education institutions – a situation some regard as challenged today by changed relations between the national state and higher education (cf Nybom, 2007). The Nordic societies are also among the most equal in the world. In sum, these similarities between the Nordic countries lay a foundation for mutual understanding, while the openness makes studies relevant also to the outside.

Topics and themes represented in the articles comprise academic values, governance and collegiality, the formation of the scholar, professionalisation, formalisation processes, peer review and socialisation. This variety reflects the landscape of higher education research in general, often described as a multidisciplinary field with no obvious domain within any of the established disciplines (Forsberg & Geschwind, 2016; Teichler, 1992; Tight, 2013).

Kerstin Sahlin and Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist discuss governance ideals and practices in their article Collegiality in Modern Universities, in which possibilities and limitations of bureaucracy, management and collegiality are illustrated and compared. In the vivacious debate on collegiality, they have noted an absence of clarification of the concept, leading to less stringent argumentation. They contribute with a principled discussion on what collegiality is, since collegiality might be undermined, not just through influence of new public management but also through undeveloped reflections on collegiality itself. Furthermore, they discuss how collegiality can be maintained and supported, and argue that collegiality cannot remain unchanged and also needs to be complemented by various modes of governance.

Efficiency has been an important argument for introducing elements of new public management in academia; however, while the consequences of that have been thoroughly critiqued, the efficiency itself has received less attention. In Science and Speed Addiction: The Scholar's Vocation in the Age of Efficiency, Sharon Rider challenges the idea of efficiency as the ultimate value. She discusses the professional identity of the professoriate and advocates that we need to rethink modernisation and rationalisation once again. In this, she points out that all activities of the mind require thinking and the time to think. This leads to a conclusion that crisis in education and research must be met by slowing down. Universities need autonomous thinking and the capacity to examine themselves and their knowledge-base.

Altered demands on universities change the circumstances for academics as well as administrative staff. Sara Karlsson and Malin Ryttberg investigate this in Those who walk the talk: the role of administrative professionals in transforming universities into strategic actors. In contrast to a common belief, they have found that the proportion of administrators compared with academics has not increased. Instead, the change is qualitative, with a higher educational level and a more varied background. In this study of highly educated and senior staff, boundaries between academics and administrators, as decision-makers and support staff, respectively, are problematised. While the distinction is upheld, administrators nevertheless had considerable impact on the management of the universities and in the transformation of universities into strategic actors.

The topic of Paula Mählck's Academics on the move? is how postcolonial knowledge relations are played out in Swedish, Mozambican and South African academic workplaces. The article makes a valuable contribution to the literature on gender and academic mobility by exploring the experiences of gendered and racialised inequality in everyday academic working life in the three countries. The study is based on an online survey and interviews with Mozambican scholars who have participated in a Swedish development-aid-supported PhD training programme in which mobility is mandatory. The findings, interpreted through the lenses of postcolonial knowledge theory and feminist translocational intersectionality, underline the importance of highlighting the complex ways in which bodies and spaces are mutually produced and how these change in different postcolonial translocal academic settings and create differing conditions for academic work. In this context, the concept of ‘embodied discursive geographies’ is suggested as a way forward.

The main topic addressed in The establishment of formal research groups in higher education institutions by Agnete Vabø, Aina Alvsvåg, Svein Kyvik and Ingvild Reymert is the significance of research groups as an established and formalised part of research strategies of university faculty. Findings from an interview, document and survey study with academic staff in Norwegian universities indicate a positive effect on the quality of both individual research and research training. However, significant differences between fields of science are reported. Still, research groups contribute to more institution-based research, also within humanities where research often is conducted on an individual basis. The authors conclude that the formalised research groups cannot be understood as a legitimising device due to changing steering and funding criteria. Rather, they manifest themselves as supplement to other forms of cooperation.

In his contribution, The academic seminar as emotional community, Thomas Karlsohn sheds light on historical ideas about the academic research seminar from a history of emotions perspective, as conceptualised by historian Barbara Rosenwein. New ideas about the modern seminar were introduced during the 18th century and Karlsohn takes us back to the initial conception of the seminar by giving a detailed account of the central documents produced by Schleiermacher in 1808: Gelegentliche Gedanken über Universitäten im deutschen Sinn. In the text, Karlsohn shows how this document includes ideas that were part of the so-called affective turn emerging during the late 1700s.

Per Fagrell, Lars Geschwind and Anders Jörnesten take a closer look at Industrial adjunct professors in Sweden, one of the groups in academia which has not been given much attention before. In this article, the authors focus on industrial adjunct professors at two Swedish universities. The aim of the study is to investigate the expectations from companies and universities as they engage in this kind of collaboration. The study, based on semi-structured interviews, shows that different stakeholders have different expectations from the adjunct professor, of which many are unarticulated. Adjunct professors are in practice involved in research, PhD supervision, advisory services and education, albeit the latter in a rather limited way. Based on these results, the authors argue that adjunct professors could be better used as a strategic resource for developing engineering curricula.

In The making of a professional academic: an analysis of Swedish doctoral supervision policy, by Joel Jansson and Henrik Román, the formation of the future doctoral degree holder is at the centre of attention. The authors describe, analyse and compare national policy of two key reforms in the late 1960s and 1990s. Together, these reforms changed the framing of doctoral education, especially supervision, in fundamental ways. Elements of both formalisation and standardisation emphasising efficiency are identified in both reforms. At the same time, there are different conceptualisations of efficiency, implying a shift in the framing of the professional socialisation of doctoral students.

Among the most important decisions forming academia are how academics are recruited and promoted, that is, who are allowed to take part and what are the incentives once in. Sara Levander and Ulla Riis have in their contribution Assessing educational expertise in academic faculty promotion elucidated the peer review processes in promotion to the position of professor. They found that the written peer statements were deficient in quantity, structure and quality, with consequences for the development of both the applicant and the organisation. This was especially true for the evaluation of educational expertise, which was clearly less valued than research expertise. Furthermore, the quantitative aspects were almost solely taken into account. While the applicants’ description of their educational credentials improved over the time studied, the opposite trend was seen in the peer statements, which became shorter over time. A conclusion was that the peer review system within the promotion reform deteriorated.

Taru Siekkinen, Elias Pekkola and Jussi Kivistö illuminate the organisational perspective on recruitment in Recruitments in Finnish universities: practicing strategic or pathetic HRM?. They discuss the harmonisation of career structures at European universities, in four stages. The recruitment practices in Finland followed another pattern and were divided into three groups with regard to the positions or bodies who decided on job descriptions and recruitment decisions. These groups were: professors and tenure-track positions, departmental positions and qualifying positions and finally contingent positions. The universities also considered the groups as strategic resources to varying degrees, and this was mirrored in the recruitment practice used in different career stages. Universities’ growing autonomy has generated new thinking on strategic recruitment, but despite legal reforms, old practices continue to matter.

The last paper by Eva Forsberg is based on a lecture given at the Conferment Ceremony at Uppsala University in 2015. The topic Curriculum Vitae – The course of life is focused on a subject where research is rather scarce, while the practices informing academics about how to make a relevant and effective curriculum vitae (CV) are fast growing. The main interest of the lecture is not how to construct the best possible CV for various situations or how to get ahead in a recruitment process. Instead, attention is drawn to possible implications of the formalisation and the standardisation of the CV and the increased impact of the CV in the building of a career and consequences for the development of academic work and practices.

As recently shown in an overview of higher education research in Sweden, life and work in academia deserves more attention (Geschwind, & Forsberg, 2015). Various internal and external stakeholders put pressure on academic life and work. Expectations from the outside can be in the form of external funding bodies, employers, industrial partners or global players such as the EU, the World Bank or the OECD. These ever-higher expectations have increased relevance and indeed secured funding from the private and public purses, and also contributed to a sense of an accelerating higher education and research sector, in which speed and efficiency have replaced the former academic ideal of Bildung, contemplation and knowledge for its own sake (Berg & Seeber, 2016; Rosa, 2013)

Together, the contributions in this issue underline the complexity and rich ecology of higher education institutions. Taking a long historical perspective, back to the roots of what we now call the modern university, the various articles elaborate on the diversity of missions, tasks, roles, expectations and responsibilities in higher education. The historical perspective enables us to reflect upon continuity and change in higher education, and, indeed, it reminds us about the origins of the university as we know it. Furthermore, the articles shed light on different phases of the academic career, from the formative years of doctoral students to recruitment of senior professors. They also highlight a group that comprises a considerable part of the university: administrators or professional staff, increasingly referred to as third space professionals, and boundary spanners exemplified by adjunct professors. All these groups of people make up modern universities and we have just started to discover the dynamics, interactions and logics among them.

This issue holds ten original research articles and one public lecture, presented by a total of 20 researchers. We like to express our appreciation to the authors, the peer reviewers and the editorial board for making this special issue on life and work in academia possible.

Maja Elmgren
Department of Chemistry - Ångström Laboratory
Uppsala University, Sweden

Eva Forsberg
Department of Education
Uppsala University, Sweden

Lars Geschwind
KTH School of Education and Communication in Engineering Science (ECE)
KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden


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Elmgren, M., Forsberg, E., Lindberg-Sand, Å., & Sonesson, A. (2016). The formation of doctoral education. Lund: Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology, Lund University.

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Fumasoli, T., Goastellec, G., & Kehm, B.M. (2015). Academic work and careers in Europe: Trends, challenges, perspectives. Dordrecht: Springer.

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About The Authors

Maja Elmgren

Eva Forsberg

Lars Geschwind

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