Academic Identity in Higher Education

  • Jonathan DrennanEmail author
  • Marie Clarke
  • Abbey Hyde
  • Yurgos Politis
Living reference work entry

General Definition

Traditionally associated with academic freedom, academic identity is today defined as lying at the crossroad of individual life course experiences and higher education specific contexts, and thus as an increasingly plural identity.


Defining Academic Identity

Definitions of academic identity in higher education are limited with a relative paucity of research in this area (Clarke et al. 2014). Those definitions that do exist tend to explore concepts related to professional identity in general rather than exploring academic identity in higher education. For example, Sachs (2001: 153) states that professional identity refers to “a set of externally ascribed attributes that are used to differentiate one group from another… It provides a shared set of attributes, values and so on so that enable the differentiation of one group from another.” In a review of the literature, Trede et al. (2012) identified a number of terms associated with academic and professional identity in higher education including: professional development, professional socialization, professional education, professional formation, and professional learning. When exploring academic identity in particular, there are a number of core concepts that emerge, including: collegiality, academic freedom, autonomy, professional self-regulation, values, and behavioral patterns (Clegg 2008; Winter 2009). However, there is a sense that many of these core concepts are evolving, changing, and, in some cases, being eroded from the discourse around academic identities due to the increasing scrutiny of the role and function of academics in today’s higher education system (Billot 2010; Clancy 2015). In particular, academic freedom as a core concept of academic identity has, it is argued, become increasingly eroded as organizational and governmental economic priorities predominate (Billot 2010). However, as academic roles continue to change, evolve, and expand, the question of academic identity is more to the fore than ever before especially in the context of continual change and the centrality of competitiveness within the higher education sector. In addition, a recent definition of identity in higher education conceptualizes the complexity of contexts which lead to the development of an academic identity and defines it as:

A dynamic construct, as one’s individual identity emerges from a personal, ethnic and national context, but it is also socially constructed over time … In the context of academe, the individual develops their sense of ‘academic self’ through their imaginings of what comprises ‘the academic’, their past experiences and their understanding of the current circumstances (Billot 2010: 4).

The Context of Academic Identity

To understand academic identity there is a need to discuss the rapid changes and complexity that exists in higher education systems, including the rapid growth from elite to universal participation in higher education, the changing profile of students (age, social group, income), changes in the working conditions of academics (short-term contracts, career pathways, promotional opportunities), the evolvement of the modular curriculum, the increasing vocationalism of academic programs, and the impact of managerialism on academic lives and work (Nixon 1996; Henkel 2005; Clegg, 2008; Winter 2009; Clarke et al. 2014). As higher education is increasingly viewed by governments as being more and more important to the economic growth of society, academics are increasingly being forced to reconfigure their roles and identity and as Henkel (2005: 195) states:

There were strong pressures on academic communities and institutions not only to change their cultures and structures to enable them to manage the new policy environment but also to review their assumptions about roles, relationships and boundaries in that environment.

At the macro level, it is increasingly being argued that policies set by national governments, not least the setting of research priorities for the achievement of economic goals, has reduced the strength of academic autonomy and resulted in the need to develop programs of “applied” rather than “basic” research with income generation becoming a principal driving force behind research outputs (Henkel 2005). In addition, academics are increasingly evaluated in terms of outputs and performance; tenure, promotion, and pay progression are becoming dependent on the successful achievement of these outcomes (Lamont and Nordberg 2014).

Although referring to the teaching profession, Sachs (2001: 151) outlines many parallel with higher education educators and researchers where the influence of state mandated goals is leading to the development and increasing influence of “managerial professionalism.” Managerial professionalism results in the requirement that academics are accountable and are required to develop an economic outlook in terms of their work; this is viewed as a new managerialism approach to academic work. New managerialism equates to the axiom: that which works in the private sector should also work in the public sector (Sachs 2001; Whitchurch and Gordon 2010). This is evident in the changing role of head of school or dean which has moved from one of being a senior colleague to one where the integration of managerial and market principles in their work predominate (Sachs 2001). The impact of new managerialism in higher education has led to a restructuring and realignment of the professional identify of academics within the system. Winter (2009: 121) writes that this new managerialism has led to an “identity schism” between academic managers and the managed, which results in an incompatibility between the goals of each group. This identity schism, Winter argues, is portrayed in managers highlighting the centrality of commercialization, income generation, and productivity whereas academics identify with the importance of collegiality, research, and education. The introduction of managerialism, it is claimed, has also resulted in the increased control of academic work, a shifting of power from the academic to the manager, and a clear delineation of management and academic activities (Whitchurch and Gordon 2010). There is also continuing tension between the notion of academic freedom and economic pressures instigated by the higher education organization; this can be seen, as Billot (2010) highlights, in academics’ emphasis on student learning as opposed to the organization’s stress on student numbers.

There is common ground in stating that higher education is in crisis, and this crisis affects the central actors in the system: the academic profession (Nixon 1996). This crisis has impacted on the working conditions of academics and the ever evolving roles and professionalization of academic work has led the profession to not only change its identity but to fundamentally question it. This questioning has led to a vulnerability of the position of academics not only in respect of tenure but also the role of academics in wider society; this is occurring in the context of public confidence rapidly declining in the traditional stalwarts of society such as politics, the church, banking, and the judiciary to name but a few. The result of these challenges is that a new set of professional and academic values and identities are emerging. While it is argued that academics can still largely control their work (teaching and research), control is increasingly becoming diminished in terms of student recruitment and research topics, which are increasingly being determined by the state and the market (Nixon 1996).

The Development of Academic Identity

The development of an academic identity is an iterative process where identity in higher education develops as a consequence of an academic’s interaction with their environment; in effect, “identity is not a fixed attribute of a person, but a relational phenomenon” (Beijaard et al. 2004: 108). Therefore, the mercurial nature of academic identities is “an on-going process of identity construction and deconstruction” due to the complexity of roles and the intellectual nature of academic work (Fitzmaurice 2013: 614). The development of academic identity is influenced by a multitude of factors, including: “personal attributes, early socialisation experiences, and contextual factors at both doctoral and initial career level” (Clarke et al. 2014; 18). It has been argued, however, that whatever academic identity existed has now been eroded due to the introduction of short-term contracts, the pressure to monetize academic outputs, the increasing influence of higher education professionals (HEPROs – management roles held in the university, usually, by nonacademics), and a loss of self-regulation. These pressures in turn have, it is argued, resulted in an undermining and loss of academic autonomy and status (Nixon 1996; Clegg 2008). In addition, the increasing influence of HEPROS has led to minimizing of the roles of academics as this cohort take over and professionalize roles previously in the domain of academics such as academic administration, educational technology, research support, and commercialization. These new roles are impacting on the traditional identities of academic staff related to teaching and research; however, even here there are tensions. Furthermore, values related to academic identity have changed considerably over the last 20 years, where, it is argued, that these traditional principles, such as academic freedom, no longer apply (Harris 2005), are under threat (Henkel 2005), and the professoriate has, if anything, become deskilled (Cote and Allahar 2007). This is seen in the extent to which marketization and monetization in particular have resulted in a reframing of academic identities due the corporate identity of the institution superseding the academic identity of the individual with claims that there is increasing blurring between these two identities (Harris 2005). Consumerism, marketization, student massification, and internationalization are themes that arise when discussing academic identity; the emerging consensus is that these pressures are fundamentally altering the identity of academics. The internationalization of the higher education sector has no doubt added benefits to the sector in terms of cultural development and understanding; however, this has not been without challenges not least in terms of realigning teaching and research strategies, increased international travel, overseas campuses, and international student recruitment; all factors that impact on traditional views of academic identity (Harris 2005).

The identity of the academics has also been impacted upon by the rise of the evaluative state (Clancy 2015); this has resulted in increasing scrutiny and regulation of the work of academics leading to a loss of autonomy and academic freedom, previously the cornerstones of academic identity (Harris 2005). In the UK, these are evidenced in the centrality of Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the life of academics. However, the extent to which research evaluative policies have impacted on academic identity is, it is argued, debateable (Harris 2005).

Academic Identity

Academic identity begins to develop as the individual transitions and is inducted into the academy; this process is influenced by both disciplinary and institutional factors (Billot and King 2017). The development of academic identity within a discipline is viewed as a process of “reconciliation” and “negotiation” (Gardner and Wiley 2016) where group norms and dynamics are developed through participation. This process involves “developing the knowledge, skills and values of the group, community or profession that one is participating in which are common to other members of the same group or community, but likely to be different to the knowledge, skills, and values of other groups/communities” (Gardner and Wiley 2016: 4). Although the development of academic identity is primarily influenced by an academic’s discipline or subject, there are other factors including professional networks, research focus, faculty structure, and the extent to which academics view their roles as predominantly one of education or research (Clarke et al. 2014).

There are a number of discourses that surround the types of academic identity that are evident among higher education staff. Central to the debate are the identities that relate to the academic as a teacher or the academic as a researcher. However, it is evident that these roles, to an extent, have become dichotomized with a premium value accorded to being a researcher; this has resulted in the eroding of the identity of the academic as a teacher. Nixon (1996: 8) argues that there is not a singular professional identity in academia but a “plurality of occupations,” which is characterized by academics whose roles are defined by “task”; this plurality results in academics with job uncertainty, resulting in short-term contracts for those who predominantly teach compared those who predominantly do research and work with graduate students resulting in the perception of having a higher status within the organization. In effect, there has been a division between academic teaching identity and academic research identity. Nixon (1996) underlines that academic identity as a teacher is rarely acknowledged with institutional awards such as pay and promotion reflecting success in research rather than education. This increasing dichotomy between teaching and research is leading to tensions in identity among increasingly partitioned groups.

In contrast, it is argued that dichotomizing academic identity into either teaching and/or research does not take into account the increasing complexity of academic roles in the twenty-first century. Clarke et al. (2014) highlights this complexity and highlights that academic identity increasingly will be formed by working across boundaries that incorporate internal and external relationships as well as comprising both professional and academic domains. Advancing this argument, it is more likely that there will not be one or two types of academic identity but a multitude of disciplinary and institutional focused identities. This will be particularly seen in the emergence of nontraditional discipline focused educational programs; academics working in this space will develop “hybridized identities” (Clegg 2008: 341) as identity adjusts to meet new ways of working. In addition, the “ivory tower” of academia is becoming less obvious as boundaries between the university and government, the private sector, and the professions become less demarcated; this is resulting in greater movement in and out of the higher education sector and, as a consequence, new identities are emerging as ideas and processes are carried from non-university and university institutions and vice versa (Whitchurch and Gordon 2010). Furthermore, the process of being an academic is infused by multiple roles and, as Clegg (2008: 340) highlights, “academic identity is complex and … cannot … be read off from descriptions of mainly teaching, research, or management roles.”

The fracturing of traditional academic identities has resulted in not only a diversity of academic roles between institutions but also a range of identities within organizations; as Harris (2005) points out, the discourse of targets, income, and outputs are ingrained in the daily life of academics. These roles lead to conflict between the values and beliefs of academics and the evaluative and monitoring requirements of the institution, especially when economic matters of the university take precedence. Harris (2005: 426) describes this as a tension between corporate identity and academic identity and states: “identities are influenced by individual values and beliefs as well as by institutional culture and positioning.” The role of academics in enhancing the corporate identity of the university has also led to considerable change in academic identity, not least in relation to the oft derided but carefully scrutinized and reported national and international higher education league tables.

There are particular challenges in negotiating academic identity for early career academics. For newer academics, developing professional identity can be impacted upon through struggling with the demands of developing a profile in teaching and research. Billot and King (2017) found that these struggles could emanate from the variability in support received by new academics from more experienced colleagues. Where support and mentoring was forthcoming, it was found to “increase the sense of a collective research community”; however, this required a “cultural shift” in thinking with newer academic needs given priority to enable them to develop their teaching and research capabilities (p. 618). Newer academics are increasingly faced with casual contracts and uncertainty of long-term employment; the consequence of this is the inability to establish their identity in higher education and a lack of structure around their career pathway. Billot and King (2017: 619) argued that ineffective induction processes for academics beginning their research career pathway led to a “sense of isolation” and a “lack of confidence,” which negatively impacted on the development of an academic identity. They further argued that relationships with other experienced academics, in particular through mentoring, provides the early career academic with a place in the organization, and this helps them understand what it means to be an academic.


In exploring academic identity in the twenty-first century, there is not just one identity but many which intersect, are temporary, and changing. Whitchurch and Gordon (2010) argue that the idea of fixed identities, for example, an identity related to either research or teaching, does not “do justice to the diversity and complexity of contemporary identities in higher education.” This is seen in the “separation and fragmentation of functions” that were once in the domain of academics and have necessitated the handing over to new roles and the diversification of roles and functions:

Within a single institution, therefore, there may exist individuals who see themselves as having different academic or professional identities, and different concepts of, for instance, academic autonomy, what constitutes applied research, relationships with students and teaching methods (Whitchurch and Gordon 2010).

Furthermore, the complexity of academic identity goes beyond the roles and responsibilities outlined in academic job descriptions (Whitchurch 2009); what is occurring is a move away from fixed identities to the development of a “fluid identity” as academics cope with the continuous levels of complexity occurring in the higher education sector (Billot 2010). As Clegg (2008: 343) concluded: “rather than being under threat, it appears that identities in academia are expanding and proliferating.”

Universities have a unique role in society and within these unique institutions academic identity is continuously evolving under both institutional and societal pressures. These pressures are multifaceted and are leading to a reframing of academic identity from the traditional dichotomous view of an academic as a researcher or educator to an identity which is fluid and evolving as new roles, disciplines, and ways of working emerge. There are a number of reasons why these reformed identities are emerging, not least due to the impact of new managerialism on ways of working and the impact of globalization, the move to student universality and the blurring of roles within the university sector. These new identities are complex, varied, and are continuing to emerge; however, these identities are being derived through the broad scope of scholarship and the development of connections and partnerships within, between, and without higher education. This reframing of identity can lead to tensions, contested spaces, and can result in identity conflict especially for early career academics and those in new disciplines. However, the now fluid nature of academic identity reflects the reality of academic lives and the extent to which academic work is reflective of the constant change in society.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Drennan
    • 1
    Email author
  • Marie Clarke
    • 2
  • Abbey Hyde
    • 2
  • Yurgos Politis
    • 2
  1. 1.University College CorkCorkIreland
  2. 2.University College DublinDublinIreland