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Catching Up:New Employment Model for a Changing Faculty

30 October 2017      Sophie Harris, Assistant Director of Human Resources – Organisational Effectiveness

Sophie Harris, deputy director of HR at SOAS, University of London considers the changing structure and composition of the academic workforce in UK and US universities. Her reflections follow a study visit to the USA as part of her UHR-CUPA Bursary prize.


While in the US, I was surprised to discover the extent of the similarities between the American higher education system and our own.  

Like in the UK, the composition of the American academic workforce has fundamentally shifted over the past several decades. Where full-time academic staff were once the norm, the large-scale employment of adjunct professors (our hourly paid, associate or visiting lecturers) is now commonplace. 

Higher education never stands still. There has been structural and policy change for decades. And we are no different to other sectors. Employment everywhere has changed: a global economy, governments retreating from public funding, the marketisation of public services, and an increase in women in the labour market have all contributed to huge shifts in employment practices.

Academic roles have shifted over the years but not in a way that is thoughtful or strategic, or aligned with the changing nature of academia. This has generated a mismatch between who the faculty are and the employment policies and practices in place. 

The current model of academic employment means that:

  • Research is still prioritised over teaching, even though most academic roles require some focus on teaching, and an increased requirement for administration. This is the case both in the US (with their drive for tenure) and in the UK (with our focus on the REF);
  • Structural constraints exist that don't promote innovation in teaching;
  • There is little flexibility to move into new areas of the curriculum or rethink areas that are no longer valued by employers or are losing favour with students;
  • The increase in adjunct faculty has negatively impacted on student learning and development, impacting continuation rates, attainment and student experience.  

Adrianna Kezar spoke at the CUPA conference in San Diego about her research on the changing faculty.

Her research envisions a greater diversity of roles in the future, and suggests building these around some key elements of a new academic model incorporating:

  • Greater flexibility in the emphases and variation of academic work, rather than focusing on all three areas of teaching, research and administration (and with a dominance on research);
  • Differentiation across institutions that have different missions and objectives;
  • Increased alignment of work to the institutional and departmental mission, vision and goals to promote student success and collaboration;
  • Revising incentives and rewards to better reflect institutional priorities;
  • Aligning status and professionalism across academic and adjunct roles, through approaches such as protecting academic freedom and ensuring equitable pay;
  • Providing equitable opportunities for growth, development and promotion across different roles;
  • Encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration;
  • Moving away from the very part-time employment of adjunct faculty to higher FTE appointments;
  • Improving flexibility in appointments, e.g. family friendly provision;
  • Promoting collegiality, respect and an increased sense of community.

With the introduction of the TEF, together with the increasingly competitive world that academia is being pushed into, a model with these components seems as relevant to the UK as it does in the US. 

There are also some important themes arising here in relation to female academic progression that I have also touched upon in my other posts. 

I’ve previously described the imbalance between the work that academics are expected to carry out, and that which they are rewarded for and that strategies that promote collegiality and mutual support networks can help female academic staff succeed. I’ve also described how vague promotion criteria can be off-putting to female staff and discourage them from applying. 

It seems that there is a real opportunity here for universities to engage with the changing model of higher eduction and translate this into a model of academic employment that reflects the new world that we are operating in. A model that more clearly links activity to reward and better reflects individual and institutional priorities would surely lead both our institutions and our faculty to greater success.

Author: Sophie Harris, SOAS University of London



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