Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Redeveloping Academic Career Frameworks for Twenty-First Century: Why on Earth do we need another academic career pathway?

  • 1 November 2023
  • By Mark Sterling and Lia Blaj-Ward
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Professor Mark Sterling, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Lia Blaj-Ward, Associate Professor (Teaching & Scholarship) at Nottingham Trent University.
  • HEPI is hosting a free webinar at 10am next Monday, 6th November, to discuss the relationship between teaching and learning at UK universities: you can sign up here.

This is one of the questions which we have considered at length in our new book. As HEPI remind us in their 20th Anniversary Collection, the nature of academic work, roles and identities has changed over time. If the sector is to continue to thrive, we need more inclusive academic career pathways for the benefit of all – staff, students and external stakeholders. This is particularly true for academic staff in local or more geographically dispersed communities.

Some months into writing our book we came across Chris Brink’s The Soul of a University (2018). His question about universities’ social purpose (what universities are good for, in addition to good at) resonated with us and it was something that the recently redesigned academic career frameworks we were looking at – from several UK universities – were striving to address. There was, however, ample scope in many cases for frameworks to be more daring and more inclusive of a variety of academic staff strengths. 

Reform of academic careers has been flagged up as a priority by the European University Association ‘vision for 2030’ document (EUA, 2021). EUA’s aspiration for 2030 is that its ~850 members will be ‘responsible, autonomous and free, with different institutional profiles, but united in their missions of learning and teaching, research, innovation and culture in service to society’ (p. 5). This inspired us to go on a reading journey. We followed the thread of academic career redevelopment work in Norway, Denmark, Sweden Finland, the Netherlands, and Austria. We then went further afield to New Zealand, Australia and the US. In some places, we found compelling evidence of cross-institutional collaboration to redesign career pathways. We pondered how collaboration could become the norm – how all universities could be supported to carry out their career redesign work, in service to society and in a principled, evidence-guided way.

As well as exploring actual career frameworks and a body of relevant literature from various fields, we followed the thread of Chris Brink’s thinking in his subsequent work (his deceptively simple and elegantly framed question about what universities are ‘good for’ drew us in). In The Responsive University (2021), Chris Brink gathers expert contributions from across the world on universities’ legacy, legitimacy and responsiveness to society. He then turns his editorial gaze to South Africa, a context with a higher education system the world must learn from about the perils of exclusion and inequity, and, more importantly, about how to draw on reserves of hope, resilience and creative energy to bring apparently conflicting interests together and to develop a direction of travel shared by all. 

Hope, citizenship and agility are the way forward

We borrowed hope from Chris Brink’s writing to underpin our search for answers about more inclusive ways to recognise, encourage and reward what academic colleagues do. Some of our questions were as follows:

  • How can redesigned frameworks open up opportunities for professional growth that value a broader range of academic work in service to society? 
  • What are the must-include items in conversations about redesigned academic career frameworks, to ensure these frameworks achieve what they aspire to? 
  • How can redesigned frameworks be evaluated, making efficient use of resource and generating as much positive impact as possible on work and life within and beyond a university?

The academic career frameworks we explored and the reading we did offered answers that were partial (incomplete): we found pockets of good practice rather than consistent good work. We also found answers we were partial to (pleased to hear): good news for pathways aiming to respond effectively to challenges as we go deeper into the 21st century.

In our book we spotlight newer pathways with a substantive focus on education, professional practice, enterprise, public engagement and knowledge exchange. With specific reference to education-focused pathways, we note the use of ‘scholarship’ in some career frameworks to differentiate between these pathways and teaching-only roles. We stress the importance of avoiding too restrictive a definition of scholarship, so that the academic work valued on these pathways enables a seamless transition for students from learning at university to learning and making a meaningful contribution beyond their degree. We also note that there is scope for academic citizenship and collegiality and for collaboration within and beyond universities to be made more visible in academic career frameworks. Doing so would enable universities to achieve integrated impact across multiple missions and commitments to society.

Items that must be present on the agenda of any conversation about framework redesign and implementation are the ways in which equality characteristics and life circumstances enable or hinder good experiences on redesigned academic pathways. We also call for a realigned, richer and more complex staff development offer, so that new pathways build capacity for greater collaborative learning and action in a university.

The twelve principles we lay out in Chapter 6 in our book offer guidance on how to build a resilient and agile core structure for academic career frameworks that respond to context-specific needs. Core structures that are resilient and sufficiently agile to weather new higher education policy storms (across national higher education systems), while also being able to flex around evolving institutional needs and cyclically renewed institutional strategies.

We acknowledge that framework redevelopment is resource-intensive and should seek to generate as much positive impact as possible on work and life within and beyond a university. In the spirit of good academic citizenship, in our closing chapter, we offer ten questions (and their underpinning assumptions) for universities to use when they evaluate their framework redevelopment endeavours. We invite universities to share the good practice they generate, and thus enable others to follow in their footsteps.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  1. Henry Miller says:

    One thing that does need an overhaul is the now rather outdated assumption of a typical academic research career that is baked into many of the policies, concordats etc promoted by universities, funding agencies, and HE quangos. This assumes PhD-Postdoc-research ‘independence’-permanent job pathway. The reality is that this pathway, if it ever existed, no longer exists due to the broken academic job market. Many people remain excellent researchers and contribute in a variety of ways despite never having a conventional permanent academic job (e.g. precariously employed staff, staff who work in administration but remain research active and so on).

  2. Daisy Hartwell says:

    Thank you for the good read, Mark and Lia!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *