Academic Profession, Higher Education

  • Ulrich TeichlerEmail author
Living reference work entry


High Education High Education Institution Managerial Power Academic Freedom Advanced Country 
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persons professionally active in the generation, discussion, preservation and dissemination of systematic knowledge through teaching and research within the frame of higher education Institutions and research institutes.

Terms and Concepts

Scholars are conceived to be persons characterized by a high intellectual caliber, being active in the generation, discussion, preservation, and dissemination of systematic knowledge. The somewhat narrower term “academic profession” suggests that these activities are undertaken for most of the period of the adult life-span, are distinct from those in the center of other occupations, and as a rule serve to secure livelihood. Finally, these activities are assumed to be undertaken as a rule in the framework of universities or – more widely defined – institutions of higher or tertiary education.

Generation and dissemination knowledge as well as its utilization in various ways are the tasks of many occupations. Scholars at institutions of higher education, though, are conceived to do this in the most intellectual demanding and systematic way, as core activities of their profession named research and (academic) teaching. They are considered to be the carriers of knowledge in all areas, often called disciplines, and to shape also the knowledge of experts working in various professional areas (e.g., academics of the discipline law shaping the knowledge of judges or lawyers, academics of engineering shaping that of engineers). The social historian Harold Perkin (1969) called the academic profession “key profession” in order to characterize their centrality in knowledge systems and high societal prestige.

For various reasons, the delineation of the academic profession is vague. First in terms of institutional settings: Those in charge of teaching and research at universities and other institutions of higher education are viewed as belonging to the academic profession. In the United States of America, even the term “faculty” is employed for the academic profession, i.e., term depicting university departments in Europe. Views vary though, whether those active at research institutes outside higher education and those working at other institutions of “tertiary” education should be included as well, and those involved in “research and development (R&D)” in industry or in charge of the generation and dissemination of systematic knowledge in other organization are rarely viewed as members of the academic profession. As regards research activities, however, the term “researchers” is often viewed as most comprehensive, and national and international research statistics define academics as one sub-category of researchers.

Second in terms of dominant functions: Persons primarily in charge of teaching and/or research at the abovementioned named institutions are viewed as academics. Customs and legal regulations vary, though, whether those with managerial functions (“rectors,” “presidents,” “deans”) are defined as academics who happens to be involved in coordination functions or as administrators. Similarly, professionals at higher education institutions primarily in charge of service and management-support activities (occasionally named “higher educational professionals,” “middle-level managers,” etc.) are often defined as administrators, in various instances though as academics.

Third in terms of employment status: Definitions employed in major comparative surveys suggest that those are viewed undoubtedly as members of the academic profession who are employed for the respective purposes at least halftime. Views vary, though, whether those should be included as well, who are employed for less than halftime, who are contracted on honorarium basis for individual courses or other work units, who work in this domain without financial compensation (for example, a “Honorar-Professor” in Germany), or who are retired and continue to be active in academia.

Fourth in terms of stages of career and work: The title “professor” is most common to depict the mature academic. Those named professors often tend to be assured of the highest pay and stable employment conditions, and they often have supervisory functions regarding academics viewed as not fully matured. Academics having not – yet – reached the professoriate undergo a long process, which is initially characterized by a dominance of learning but gradually shifts toward productive work: This can be characterized as “formative years” of academic work (Teichler 2006). Thereby, definitions vary as regards the first stage of the academic career. The term doctoral “student” is customary in some countries, while terms such as doctoral “candidate” or similarly are preferred in other countries. In some countries, more than half of the doctoral candidates are employees at higher education institutions, while in others study without pay, support by means of fellowships, or the status of ‘auxiliary’ staff prevails (Gokhberg et al. 2016).

Characteristics of the Academic Profession

Reviews of the characteristics of the academic profession have to take into account that certain features of the knowledge system might be universal and that certain elements of the institutional fabrique of higher education are arranged similarly worldwide. However, many features of career, employment, job descriptions, and coordination are regulated nationally or on lower levels (regionally or institutionally; see Clark 1984; Teichler et al. 2013). Yet, though the details might vary, three features can be observed all over the world.

Obviously, the academic profession ideally is characterized by a close link between research and teaching. This link is applicable to academics at institutions called “universities” in Europe and otherwise “research universities” or “research-oriented universities.” According to some analyses, teaching is historically the key function of higher education only supplemented during the recent two centuries in some sectors by research (Altbach 1991). The terms “university teacher” or “higher education teacher” are employed – at times legally, often in statistics, often informally – to characterize the academic profession. Other analyses, in contrast, underscore research as most strongly shaping the identity of the academic profession (Enders 2006). Actually, the notion of “unity of research and teaching,” coined by Wilhelm von Humboldt with reference to the foundation of the University of Berlin in 1810, is most frequently named the core idea of the modern university. Detailed accounts, however, suggest that most academics in some countries understand this as dominance of research which is taken up in teaching, and those in some other countries strive for a balance between research and teaching, while finally others take a dominance of teaching for granted (Arimoto 2014). Teaching tends to dominate in other higher education institutions, which in most instances have no right to award doctoral degrees, often have an applied educational thrust and often offer shorter study programs. It should be added that additional functions of the academic professions are depicted with terms such as “administration,” “services,” “knowledge transfer,” “third mission,” “civic engagement,” etc. This indicates partly additional activities within the academic system, e.g., academic self-administration or evaluation and assessment activities, and externally directed activities such as transfer knowledge to society or academics’ active involvement in other life spheres (see Jongbloed et al. 2008).

Further, the academic profession is characterized by a very long process of learning and maturation. In most countries, academics eventually appointed to professorial positions at about 40 years are only considered full-fledged members of the academic profession when they reach this stage. In most other professions, though, a stable influential position is reached at an earlier stage and is not so clearly segmented in titles, functions, and inter-professional power. The junior career path is highly selective in many countries. In economically advanced countries, less than one tenth of persons having been awarded a first higher education degree eventually reach a doctorate, and in most countries with relatively high rates of doctorate, less than one fifth of doctorate holders eventually reach senior academic positions. Moreover, part-time and short-term employment are far more frequent among junior than among senior academics in most countries (see Galaz-Fontes et al. 2016).

Irrespective of the duration and selectivity of junior academic careers stages: A substantial divide between senior academics – often called the professoriate – and junior academics holds true in many countries. In Germany, for example, even not a common term of academic profession exists for senior academics, officially called “higher education teachers,” and junior academics called “academic coworkers.” The former tend to be privileged as regards reputation, access to resources for research, as well as influence in internal decision-making, and they often have supervisory functions as regards junior academics’ work. This raises the question whether there is a single or various academic professions – according to status, as discussed here, or to the extent of involvement in research or according to institutional types, as discussed below (Teichler 2010).

Finally, the academic profession enjoys a higher degree of disposition in determining its work tasks than other professions do as a rule. “Academic freedom” is considered necessary to generate new knowledge and to prepare students for indeterminate work tasks (Shils 1991). In some countries, “academic freedom” is reinforced by a high degree of institutional “autonomy,” whereby academics, notably professors – often, but not consistently – have substantial influence on administrative matters of their higher education institution.

Changing Contexts, Expectations, and Activities

The academic profession experienced substantial changes in recent decades regarding its context and societal expectations directed to it, and academics themselves changed in many respects their views and activities – often in response to changing environments. Expansion of higher education (Altbach 1996), increasing managerial power, growing expectations regarding the relevance of academic work, and internationalization of academia and society are the most important trends addressed in this framework (Höhle and Teichler 2013).

Expansion of higher education: The proportion of the respective age group enrolling in higher education as students from less than one tenth on average in economically advanced countries in the 1950s to more than half five decades later reflects a growing importance of higher education. But the concurrent growth of the academic profession did not necessarily lead to an increased pride as regards the importance of the knowledge system.

Rather, expansion triggered diversification of higher education, whereby the top of system could persist with moderate chances, while less privileged sectors experienced substantial changes, e.g., the establishment of institutions the academics of which were solely in charge of teaching or had limited research tasks. Moreover, teaching and research in those sectors were expected to have an applied approach rather than the absolute freedom of exploring new territories of knowledge. While some academics in these sectors were satisfied with the other profile of their institutions and work assignments, others felt themselves as inferior to the reputation of universities and the traditional professoriate and, in response, reinforced “academic drift” toward the traditional model.

Altogether, the view seems to have spread among academics in the wake of higher education expansion that they are a profession under pressure – not only loosing social exclusivity but also facing deteriorating employment and work conditions. According to various surveys, the percentage even of senior academics employed short-term or part-time increased as well as of those in lower income categories. Yet concurrently, access to academia increased of hitherto underprivileged socio-biographic groups, i.e., women (see Eggins 2017), academics with parents of lower educational backgrounds, and academics from various ethnic groups and foreigners (Finkelstein et al. 1998). Interpretations, however, varied about the extent to which greater success of traditionally underrepresented groups was attributable to a loss of privileges as a whole or an indication of a more meritocratic career system.

Increasing managerial power: In many countries, institutional leadership has moved since about the 1980s from moderate power in predominantly collegial settings toward powerful professional management. Regulatory systems got tighter, allocation of resources became a tool of management, and mechanisms of evaluation and performance assessment spread. Many analyses show that mechanisms of “marketization” and “entrepreneurialism” are closely linked to managerial regimes (Enders 2001). While this often was hailed as increasing institutional “autonomy” vis-à-vis government and other stakeholders as well as strengthened effectiveness and efficiency, attempts of introducing such changes often met with skepticism and resistance on the part of academics. Fear seemed to be widespread that this restricts the potentials of academics to strive for unexpected insight.

Growing managerial power often is linked to efforts to underscore specific characteristics of individual higher education institutions and to strengthen the notion of belonging to an institution or even of institution-based identity. This has been reinforced in recent years by strong attention being paid to “rankings” of individual universities. Most studies on academic views and activities, however, have shown that academics vary enormously according to disciplines (Becher 1989) and that they feel most strongly committed to their discipline and possibly to their unit of teaching and research and less – if at all – to their higher education institution (Altbach 1996; Teichler et al. 2013).

Growing expectation of relevance: The increasing popularity of terms such as “knowledge society” or even “knowledge economy” do not merely suggest that systematic knowledge moves toward increasing influence on economic and societal developments but also that higher education aims at contributing in a more targeted way to these developments (see Cummings and Teichler 2015). This is often underscored by growing involvement of external “stakeholder” in higher education, increasing calls for raising funds from sources outside academia, calling for greater concern of graduates’ “employability’ in study programs, and underscoring the measurement of “impact” in evaluation activities. This also meets with skeptical views in academia, many of whom being concerned that academic quality might be sacrificed for relevance, and others that universities might be driven to serve only the external expectations of powerful and influential stakeholders.

Internationalization: Although the academic profession traditionally strives for borderless collection of knowledge, is mobile across borders, appreciates international reputation, and often harbors cosmopolitan values, experts note a recent trend toward internationalization of higher education. Notably, physical mobility of student and academics is supported in a more targeted manner and increases substantially, and international research collaboration notably is increasingly viewed as beneficial. Worldwide virtual communication becomes more important in teaching and research. Academics seem to adapt to these challenges more readily than to those named above; thus, more than one tenth of academics on average of economically advanced countries work abroad, about one fifth are awarded a doctoral degree abroad, and more than half of academics have substantial international experiences in the course of their career (see Cavalli and Teichler 2015). Yet, problems of internationalization are pointed out as well – i.e., loss of talents notably on the part of economically and academically disadvantaged regions (“brain drain”), labor market barriers, quality loss due to disparities of academic experiences, and lack of language skills or of intercultural understanding.


Some analyses of the academic profession underscore academic freedom, high motivation in the search for truth and new knowledge, and collaboration in collegial settings as characteristic. Others point out endemic problems, e.g., the ambivalent situation of junior academics. Others finally underscore increasing challenges due to higher education expansion, growing managerial power, and increasing expectation to be relevant to technology, economy, and society.

The majority of features not fitting the ideal initially named are viewed by some academics as endangering the essentials of the academic profession. International comparative studies, however, suggests that the majority of academics accommodates to features, which are in part viewed as questionable and dangerous, and altogether continue to consider their professional setting as satisfactory. Satisfaction with the overall professional situation even is on the rise (Teichler et al. 2013).

Most characterizations, however, have those in economically advanced countries in mind. In other parts of the world, we frequently note on the one hand constraints of working conditions, more infringements of academic freedom, and often restrictions as regards research that it even was characterized as “endangered species” (Vessuri and Teichler 2008). On the other hand, successful moves of “catching up” with economically advanced countries can be seen in some instances (see UNESCO 2010). The variety of observations, thus, calls for being cautious in general statements about the academic profession and for taking note of variations across countries, disciplines, institutions, and status groups.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.INCHER-KasselUniversity of KasselKasselGermany