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Academic and Professional Identities in Higher Education: The Challenges of a Diversifying Workforce

reviewed by Fazal Rizvi - September 29, 2010

coverTitle: Academic and Professional Identities in Higher Education: The Challenges of a Diversifying Workforce
Author(s): Celia Whitchurch and George Gordon (eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415990904, Pages: 288, Year: 2009
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This book addresses an issue of utmost importance for an understanding of contemporary shifts taking place in higher education around the world. The fourteen essays contained in this collection explore the changing nature of work in higher education, and how this is transforming academic and professional identities. No longer are identities best seen in terms of stable membership of professional associations, established divisions of labor, and hierarchies of authorities, but as continuous projects in the context of multiple and shifting relationships. The maintenance of clear functional and disciplinary boundaries has become difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. As the workforce of higher education has expanded and diversified, professional identities have become more fluid, and involve “individual positioning in and between spaces,” which are no longer defined exclusively in terms of academic work, but are forged out of the blurring of the knowledge boundaries between faculty and other categories of staff.

These shifts, suggests George Gordon in his opening chapter, are global in their scope, and have arguably been driven by the complex and contradictory processes of globalization. In elaborating this thesis, Gordon provides a most helpful account of the various ways in which higher education institutions around the world are changing. Included in his list of these transformations are: widening participation leading to a more diverse student population; growth of private institutions and entrepreneurialism; international mobility of staff and students and international collaboration in teaching, research, and knowledge transfer; development of new pedagogies driven by the new technologies and social media; explosion of knowledge and the sites where it is produced and consumed; and new modes of accountability and human resource management. These shifts have altered the nature of higher education labor markets and the conditions under which faculty and staff are employed, remunerated and rewarded. Given the nature and pace of these changes, Gordon concludes that new ways of thinking about academic identities and professional development are needed.

The essays that follow take up this challenge. From his position as the General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors in the United States, Gary Rhoades discusses the emergence of what he calls the “invisible work” carried out by non-academic “managerial” professionals, working within a more entrepreneurial and commercialized academe that Rhoades has elsewhere characterized as “academic capitalism.” At the same time, Rhoades argues that an increasing amount of academic work is now done by non-tenure track faculty, and that even tenured academic faculty are becoming “managed” professionals. This contrast between managerial and managed lies at the heart of Rhoades’ analysis of the ways in which academic careers are becoming diversified, and cut across increasingly blurred boundaries within and between higher education, markets, and the states. This, Jane Usherwood argues, requires universities to re-think their employment practices. She stresses the importance of learning from experiences in other work contexts, even if there are elements that make universities different from other places of work.

Of course, any attempt to learn from other contexts cannot be effective without the recognition that different national systems of higher education meet the new challenges of academic work and labor relations in ways that are inevitably located in their own institutional histories. So while some of the pressures on systems might be the same, their responses are certainly not. This much is clearly demonstrated in the next four chapters, which deal with the career pathways and reward systems that are being developed in England, Japan, South Africa and France respectively. In his chapter, Tony Strike provides a compelling account of how new models of academic careers in England are responding not only to the strategic, competitive, and organizational needs of the institutions but also to the broader policy settings of the state, such as the research ranking system of British universities called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Emerging are conditions in which different contributions and career routes are recognized and rewarded in ways that vary across functions and employment contracts. In contrast, academic careers are managed and rewarded very differently in Japan, as noted by Jun Oba.  While Japan faces similar challenges, it has found it more difficult to implement wide-ranging reforms due largely to its traditional university culture and rigid employment practices.

While the South African universities too, as Smit and Nyamapfene show, are affected by the pressures of massification, competition, and corporatization, changes in the role of academics there are deeply affected by the differing ethos, history, and practices of South African universities. While this observation is of course perfectly accurate, what would have been helpful in this chapter is an analysis of the ways the history of Apartheid has deeply shaped institutions that were once racially segregated. As South Africa seeks to transform itself into a democratic state, its universities have been asked to provide political leadership, deeply unsettling the traditional norms of academic work and career pathways. What is missing in this chapter, and to a lesser extent in the chapters on England and Japan, is an examination of the ways in which broader cultural and political changes, relating, for example, to shifting youth cultures and cultural politics of difference, are profoundly linked to the manner in which academic work is organized and rewarded. So while recruitment procedures and practices are indeed changing in France, as Musselin notes, this shift cannot be fully explained without an understanding of the ways in which French society and its public institutions are constituted.

An account of the changing landscape of higher education does not therefore require only references to the shifting policy settings, such as the demands of the knowledge economy, and other factors internal to institutions, but also the broader cultural shifts that have accompanied the contemporary processes of globalization. This is particularly the case with issues relating to professional identities, and how these might be developed so that they are able to negotiate new demands and challenges with respect to the shifting boundaries of knowledge and professional work. These issues define the final two sections of the book. In his chapter, Craig McGinnis shows how the new dynamics of workplace in higher education are challenging the traditional sources of academic identities, associated with a sense of authority, autonomy, and capacity for self-regulation. Celia Whitchurch examines how the traditional systems of tenure are coming under pressure from the emergence of short-term project-specific roles, while Derek Law shows how new technologies are transforming the academic identities of Library and Information Services staff. The papers by Judith Gappa and Robin Middlehurst and the final paper by Whitchurch provide a more speculative and normative discussion of the ways in which we might re-think faculty work and labor relations within the broader context of the challenges of diversification.

While this discussion is robust and insightful, by and large, it lacks a serious attempt at showing how the challenges facing academics are not always internal to the institutions of higher education but are also driven by broader political and cultural transformations. So while the diversification of academic work is clearly re-shaped by policy settings and organizational dynamics, it is also affected by broader societal factors. The meaning of diversification appears to be restricted in this collection to the diversification of institutional roles. Yet, another sense of diversification in terms of the cultural politics of race, class, and gender affecting higher education is equally important, but is almost entirely absent in this volume. The discussion presented is largely located within the traditions of human resource management. It is noted, for example, that academic roles have become fractionalized into independently performed tasks of what was once arguably an integrated system. What would have been helpful here is some exploration of how this has resulted in not only some loss of organizational coherence but also significant consequences for societies which look to universities to provide cultural and political leadership.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 29, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16176, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:40:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Fazal Rizvi
    University of Melbourne
    E-mail Author
    FAZAL RIZVI recently joined the faculty of the University of Melbourne in Australia, having worked over the past decade at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he directed its Global Studies in Education program. He is the convener of the annual World Universities Forum. His most recent books include Globalizing Education Policy (Routledge 2010).
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