Academics’ work and the concept of “profession” : an Australian case study

Ferman, Terrie (2011) Academics’ work and the concept of “profession” : an Australian case study. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Universities in Australia and elsewhere have changed considerably in recent years. Inevitably, this has meant that the work of academics has also changed. Academics’ work is of importance because they are key players in universities and universities matter to the nation economically and intellectually in advancing knowledge and its practical application. Through the changes and challenges that have characterised academia in recent years, there is an assumption that academics’ work is representative of a profession. This research study investigates how academics construct their own perspectives regarding the academic "profession". The study is theoretically informed by Freidson’s theory that conceptualises professions as occupations if they are in control of their work rather than it being under the control of either the market or of their employing institutions. Two research questions guide this study. The first question investigates how academics might construct their work in ideal terms and the second one investigates the extent to which such constructions might constitute a "profession". A qualitative case study was conducted within two Australian universities. In all, twenty academics from ten disciplines took part in the study that consisted of a focus group and fifteen individual interviews. The study was conducted in three phases during which a conceptual framework of academics’ work was developed across three versions. This framework acted both a prompt to discussion and as a potential expression of academics’ work. The first version of the framework was developed from the literature during the first phase of the study. This early framework was used during the second phase of the study when five academics took part in a focus group. After the focus group, the second version of the framework was developed and used with fifteen academics in individual interviews during phase three of the study. The third version of the framework was the outcome of a synthesis of the themes that were identified in the data. The discussion data from the focus group and the individual interviews were analysed through a content analysis approach that identified four major themes. The first theme was that academics reported that their work would ideally be located within universities committed to using their expert knowledge to serve the world. The second theme was that academics reported that they wanted sufficient thinking time and reasonable workloads to undertake the intellectual work that they regard as their core responsibility, particularly in relation to undertaking research. They argued against heavy routine administrative workloads and sought a continuation of current flexible working arrangements. The third theme was that teaching qualifications should not be mandated but that there should be a continuation of the present practice of universities offering academics the opportunity to undertake formal teaching qualifications if they wish to. Finally, academics reported that they wanted values that have traditionally mattered to academia to continue to be respected and practised: autonomy, collegiality and collaborative relationships, altruism and service, and intellectual integrity. These themes are sympathetic to Freidson’s theory of professions in all but one matter: the non-mandatory nature of formal qualifications which he regards as absolutely essential for the performance of the complex intellectual work that characterises occupations that are professions. The study places the issue of academic professionalism on the policy agenda for universities wishing to identify academics’ work as a profession. The study contributes a theory-based and data-informed conceptual framework for academics’ work that can be considered in negotiating the nature and extent of their work. The framework provides a means of analysing what "academic professionalism" might mean; it adds specificity to such discussions by exploring a particular definition of profession, namely Freidson’s theory of professions as occupations that are in control of their own work. The study contributes to the development of theories around higher education concepts of academic professionalism and, in so doing, links that theoretical contribution to the wider professions field.

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ID Code: 50790
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Danby, Susan & Watters, James
Keywords: academic, academia, occupation, profession, university, higher education, Australia
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Office of Education Research
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Education
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 06 Jun 2012 04:38
Last Modified: 06 Jun 2012 04:38

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