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More tasks, less freedom for professors

The role of professors around the world has been altered by a push for more applied research, a growing list of administrative tasks and increasingly managerial-style control by universities. In many countries academics are obliged to spend too much time teaching with little left over for research - and even when there is time, academics may be swamped by paperwork and lack freedom to pursue a chosen line of research.

These points - along with a call by the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge to improve the inadequate state of doctoral education - emerge in a chapter of the Forum's just-published Research Report by Ulrich Teichler and Yasemin Yağci, titled "Changing Challenges of Academic Work: Concepts and observations".

The layering on of roles for professors is an important point in the chapter section on the academic profession.

Experts advising the Forum, the authors write, "by and large agree on four interrelated major changes in the environment shaping academic professional roles". These are the 'massification' of higher education, the Knowledge Economy, the increasing power of management or 'managerialism', and growing competition.

The terms employed and analyses vary and are ambivalent, say Teichler and Yağci. Potential for improvements are acknowledged and dangers are underscored, but the notion most often presented is of a "profession under pressure".

The authors reveal how academics jobs in many countries have become over-loaded with teaching responsibilities, eroding the ability to conduct research. For those who do get time to research, the work is often over-prescribed by their government or institution.

Even when there is time and the freedom to pursue a chosen line of research, researchers are commonly expected to raise funds, administrate a plethora of paperwork and facilitate large teams involved in the work.

Experts from Mexico presented to Teichler and Yağci the following description of the extended functions of university lecturers: teaching, research, participation in technological development, counselling and taking a central role in service activities, both to the productive and social sectors.

Another expert added to that list: writing proposals, developing contracts, elaborating e-learning programmes, and being engaged in technology transfers. Particularly in the US and Germany, add to that the ability to raise money and to manage research projects, with experts pointing out that these abilities are today criteria for hiring professors.

"Many would point out that the time needed to act as an effective and efficient facilitator is considerably more than that needed to deliver a traditional lecture," argues UK author Heather Eggins, quoted in the chapter.

The authors found that many established research units, in order to keep their funding, play it safe with research themes and get involved in more applied research if they want to keep their contracts with industry.

They also found undermining of the motivation of academics by too much managerial control. Professionals who are amateurs in academic matters but experts in shaping the university have taken more power over the goals and processes of teaching and research.

Competition, write Teichler and Yağci, "is a normal state of affairs in the highly selective and intellectually demanding academic profession, and those academics who strive continuously for the highest level of achievement are generally viewed as desirable".

But in recent years academic work has been increasingly placed under a regime of incentive mechanisms, evaluation measures and indicator-based steering, the authors say: "Many critics note a growth of counterproductive effects.

"These include over-burdening of academics, too much attention to externally well-funded research objectives, overemphasis on short-term, visible success, imitation of the goals and processes of select 'world-class universities', and neglect of the less well-paid and less incentive-supported functions of higher education."

Tenure is being eroded in many countries. Japan has been offering mostly short-term employment to professors while Latvia has all but abolished permanent professorships.

"Working conditions in Asia commonly consist of large classes, lectures, few laboratories and rote learning. Often direct teaching is some 20 hours a week. Needless to say, little time is left for research," write Teichler and Yağci, quoting from an Eggins study.

The authors cite a survey which revealed that 68% of university teachers in India find it difficult to manage research along with a heavy teaching schedule, leading to half of them abstaining from any form of research. In the Philippines, many faculty members consider teaching as their main task, with research being only an add-on activity.

Academic freedom is also under threat, according to Teichler and Yağci. One Australian survey found that a shocking one in five academics reported being prevented from publishing contentious research results.

In the next section on research training and young researchers, the authors cite many countries where doctoral training is not up to scratch.

In India, for example, the teacher acts as an information-delivering agent, while in Egypt postgraduate students are too often used as tools for doing practical or field work for professors. In the US, doctoral students are seen as too narrowly trained and are lacking in key professional skills, and those in Europe experience frequent financial insecurity and lack proper supervision.

Throughout the world, universities have a diminishing role in hiring doctoral students, with research institutes and private research increasing the ranks of PhD graduates more than universities.

There have been some positive turnarounds, with Brazil and Mexico now seeing a consolidation of graduate studies. Brazil has also been taking great leaps in expanding graduate education. China has seen the most remarkable growth - from producing fewer than 1,000 PhDs in the early 1980s to about 200,000 in 2004 - though many doctoral students learn in large classrooms and endure less than adequate supervision or facilities.

* Professor Ulrich Teichler is immediate past Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel in Germany. He has published more than 1,000 academic publications, especially on higher education and the world of work, international comparisons of higher education systems, and international cooperation and mobility in higher education.

* Yasemin Yağci is a PhD student and research assistant in the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel in Germany.

Click here to download the Unesco Forum Research Report.
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