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The new professionalisation of the academic career in the context of the European Higher Education Area

The relationship between higher education institutions and society, as well as between learning and teaching, is evolving. This is driven by the changing ways in which students learn, different types of interaction in the classroom, and continuous adaptation to new developments and research. Romiță Iucu from the University of Bucharest examines this evolution in higher education and advocates for a new academic professional identity to transform careers.

In today’s Europe, education systems are expected to be accountable and have tangible and transparent outcomes. They are also required to be in line with economic development, the labour market, and the expectations and value shifts of society - including the civic and attitude-related dimensions.

The European University Association (EUA) has been focusing on learning and teaching, and how universities can better balance their research and education missions while meeting the students’ needs to become active partners in the learning process. This is the same reality faced by the Romanian higher education system, as accountable institutions must better respond to challenges in order to transform into open networks involving all interested parties, especially students.

In this process of transformation, we must understand how higher education is changing and adapting to new ways of learning, teaching and interacting:

First, we are moving from a focus on world-class universities to civic universities, meaning that alongside research and education, universities must also fulfil the mission of social support, that of a vector of ideas and values supporting the advancement of society.

Second, there is a shift from standardised professions to professions that have not been invented yet. This evolution of society, of professions and of the labour market requires a new educational approach of the curriculum and of the relationship between different stakeholders.

Third, equal access chances are taking a back seat to equal success chances. This means that students’ aspiration to achieve personal and professional success contrasts with some of the goals of the European educational systems, which are oriented towards standardised, measurable performance.

Fourth, digital natives are now becoming socially interactive individuals. This changing profile of those enrolled in higher education and the features of the student populations imposes a new type of classroom management.

Fifth, teachers now do more than teach, they facilitate. This has changed the educators’ role, attitude and educational style, which leads to a new approach of visible learning based on thoughtfulness.

Sixth, there is a shift from learning exclusively based on teaching to learning based on research evidence, using the products of scientific research for teaching purposes and conveying knowledge-mobilising research.

Finally, we are focusing more and more on happier students as wellbeing has become a reference for studies and research in education, with the aim of designing an environment that motivates and involves students.

Against this background, the academic teaching profession and the academic career need a new kind of professionalisation. For this to happen, a new professional identity cannot solely be based on initial training with a specific research profile and a master’s degree in teaching methods. We need more than educational training and teaching skills to foster the kind of university teachers expected by students and by the Europe of the future. How can we achieve this?

To begin with, we need to change the role of university teachers to that of teaching facilitators (designers, developers, enablers) able to create a learning environment adapted to students’ needs. This is a vital requirement for the educational interactions of the future. Students’ deep motivation and wellbeing are also influenced by the teacher’s ability to connect real-life situations to learning contexts, to ask students for their opinions and to stimulate their value judgments and reflections.

Furthermore, research in neurobiology has fundamentally changed the characteristics of learning by stimulating cortical areas previously underestimated by the educational practice. This has an impact on teaching practices: teachers need to use different cognitive support, as well as various and interactive stimuli able to trigger deep learning. In the long run, guiding the learning offer by principles of sustainability and transfer of student knowledge needs to be a constant concern for university teachers.

Finally, careers in academia should reflect the importance of universities’ education mission. It is currently overwhelming for a university teacher to pursue a successful career while trying to balance learning and teaching, research, counselling and a social and civic role. There seems to be a political momentum for a new professionalisation of the academic career in the context of the European Higher Education Area. The European Ministers of Education declared in May 2018 that “as high-quality teaching is essential in fostering high quality education, academic career progression should be built on successful research and quality teaching. We will promote and support institutional, national and European initiatives for pedagogical training and continuous professional development of higher education teachers” (Paris Communique, 2018). From a strategic perspective, we must train educators who uphold the highest professional, scientific, moral and teaching standards, who are more than the mere result of favourable career opportunities focused exclusively on scientometric performances. This can be done through authentic research based on strong ethical standards with an impact on the institutional practices and values shared by the main stakeholders of the European Higher Education Area.

By embracing and celebrating this new academic professional identity and a deeper professionalization of the academic career, we will be able to better respond to the changing learning needs of students, to the new challenges in learning and teaching, and to the evolving role of higher education institutions in today’s society and in the future.

Romiță Iucu was a member of EUA’s 2018 Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on “Career Paths in Teaching”.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Romiță Iucu

Romiță Iucu is Professor of Educational Sciences and Vice-Rector for Academic Strategy and Study Programmes at the University of Bucharest in Romania. In 2018, he was a member of EUA’s Thematic Peer Group on “Career Paths in Teaching”.

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