European universities facing the challenge of international recruitment by Maria Pietilä

Maria Pietilä (Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki)
Maria Pietilä (Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki)

In the recent years, there has been lively discussion on needs to renew academic career structures in European universities. The career paths have typically differed between European countries. This may be problematic if increasing mobility is a significant policy aim. It has also been considered whether the current circumstances for pursuing academic career are attractive enough for the younger generations.

Several European universities have recently launched new career systems that resemble tenure track systems familiar in the North American context. In my article ‘Tenure track career system as a strategic instrument for academic leaders“, published in European Journal of Higher Education, I approach the new systems established in the Finnish context from the perspective of academic leaders. The academic leaders come from different hierarchical levels at two research-oriented universities in Finland.

The main findings relate to the goals academic leaders perceive in the academic career system. The two most significant goals were identified. These were to attract junior-level scholars from the global academic labour market and to allocate needed resources for academic staff remuneration and good working conditions within the university. The study also analysed the administrative procedures and the tensions between the hierarchical levels in selecting the positions and individuals for tenure-track positions.

Some lessons can be learned from the findings.

First, it may be difficult to ‘import’ career systems from abroad and then to re-design them to fit the local socio-cultural and legal context. For example, the American tenure-track system is based on a high number of discontinuations of contracts, a big labour market with ample academic opportunities, and high mobility between the institutions. Universities situated in countries characterised with low mobility, low number of equivalent workplaces and labour legislation based on permanent contracts have to design systems that suit their particular context.

Second, it is a delicate question for universities to decide on their internal decision-making procedures and responsibilities. Who should be involved in the decisions about the field in which a new position is offered? Who are involved in the decisions about the recruitment criteria? Who are involved in the decisions about which candidate is finally recruited? The leaders at the top of the university hierarchy may have incentives to centralise the processes within the university to guarantee the parity and uniformity of recruitment and promotion. However, centralised processes may narrow down the freedom of action of departments, when they aim to advance department- and field-specific personnel and academic goals. These tensions relate to a broader discussion on the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation of internal governance structures in universities.

Third, as universities are increasingly perceived as competing against each other in the higher education and research market, international recruitment becomes more and more important, especially for universities in small countries. However, the interviewed leaders stated it is often difficult to succeed in this competition, because the potential recruits are demanded also elsewhere. In that case, it may be easier to entice junior-level academics who are mobile and do not yet have an established position. However, success in recruiting and keeping staff requires that universities provide competitive working conditions with good infrastructure, appropriate salary level, a significant amount of support in research and teaching, and opportunities to form research groups.

Compared to project-based recruitment, universities’ internal career paths offer more long-term career prospects for academics. However, for universities, they are more demanding as universities should invest in recruitment and promotion processes, start-up packages, and high-quality introductory phase.




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