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Master Thesis Reader - Research and Innovation in Higher Education

Changing Academic Work in China: Under the Impact of Academic Promotion Policy

Gaoming Zheng



Background and problem statement

Today, higher education (HE) is perceived as peculiar among the various sectors of production and service in modern society: higher education institutions (HEIs) are regarded as institutions with ‘a relatively open set of multiple goals; a loose mechanism of coercion, controlled and steered from above; and a high degree of fragmentation and strong influence of the principal workers’ (Enders & Musselin, 2008) . Enders and Musselin (2008) pointed out that these ‘principal workers’ are ‘academics’, and they are ‘on the determination of goals, the management and administration of institutions and the daily routines of work’ (p.126). ‘Academics’ are understood as ‘academic staff working in universities and other higher education institutions in different ranks, with different contracts and at different stages of their career...[Not only] ‘professoriate’ as the traditional core of the academic profession, but other faculty groups [are included] as well.’ (Enders & Musselin, 2008). To be more specific, ‘academics’ in this study refers to full-time academic staff members with different academic ranks in Chinese public universities.

Academics have been considered as key stakeholders and academic profession as the key profession in terms of its significant influence on institutions, as well as on the interrelations between higher education and different sectors of production and service (Enders & Musselin, 2008; Pang & Shen, 2012). Nevertheless, several researches (B. F. Li, Yang, & Zhou, 2012; X. J. Li & Su, 2007; Song & Fang, 2008; Yuan, 2010; Z. H. Zhang & Su, 2012; Zheng, 2005) suggested that today academics in Chinese Universities are under intense pressure, especially the job pressure, which makes them become the social vulnerable group in universities.

There are many reasons for academics under pressure, but striving for academic promotion is regarded as one of the most influential factors (L. L. Li, 2010; Z. C. Liu & Sun, 2009; Y. N. Wang & Zhu, 2011). Intense job pressure is one significant manifestation of the effects of academic promotion on academic work. Academic work means ‘what is it that academics actually do?’ (Clark, 1987, p. 70). Academic work in this study, is understood as ‘the daily duties and practices of an academic life’ (Clark, 1987, p. xxvii), covering research, teaching, social service, and the different combinations of research, teaching and social service. Another noticeable effect, which we cannot fail to pay attention to, is the misconduct of academic activities. The ‘Qiushi’ Case in 2005 is one impressive example, which shocked the Chinese academy like a bomb at that moment, and led more than 400 academics to gather in Beijing and sign against Shen’s misconduct. Shen, a Chinese associate professor in Tianjin, plagiarized 13 academic papers of others’, and got them published as a monograph, just for the purpose of meeting the requirement of academic promotion, which was admitted by Shen himself (H. Zhang, 2005). During the past decade, similar cases have been reported by mass media from time to time (Nandu, 2014). Li (2010) analyzed the reasons for academic plagiarism and his analysis result showed that the pressure to get promoted and economic effects related to promotion is one of the most significant reasons behind plagiarism. Another study concerning the science research activities in China HEIs by Mohrman et al (2011) also supported Li’s (2010) viewpoint. Mohrman et al. (2011) maintained that there is a major connection between current instances of misconduct in scientific research and the evaluation of academics. Liu (2008) believed that the current academic promotion policy was the fundamental reason for the multiplication of worthless publications in China. Besides, Pang and Shen (2012) also stated that the quantification of performance indicators and criteria in evaluating and promoting academics is regarded as the key element affecting the healthy development of academic profession in Chinese HE system.

As previous studies and data show, though the academic promotion policy in China is intended to motivate academics to produce excellent teaching , research and provide social service (Zou, 2006), it might also have other un-intended effects on academics, e.g. intense job pressure, misconduct of academic activities, multiplication of worthless publications, etc.. Considering that academics are principle stakeholders in HEIs and important for the development of HE system, we find it significant to research on how the academic promotion policy affects academic work in China’s context. For one thing, to study the effects of the academic promotion system can help people better understand the Chinese academic promotion system. For another, to explore the way in which the academic promotion is influencing academic work may be useful for policy-makers, university managers and academics to work together to provide a supportive environment for academics. However, currently although there have been some studies regarding the academic promotion system in China, there are considerable gaps in our understanding of the impact of the current academic promotion policy in China’s context.

So far, there has not been a single study conducted concerning the impacts of the current academic promotion policy on academic work in Chinese universities. The publications about Chinese academic promotion system are scarce. Some studies discuss the topic, academic promotion system, indirectly, when studying other related topics, such as faculty life, faculty salaries, historical development of academic profession, etc. (Ma & Wen, 2012; Mohrman et al., 2011; Shen, 2007; Shen, 2008; Yan & Chen, 2008; Yan, 2010). In the latest publications, some studies directly addressed the issue of academic promotion system (Gonzalez, Liu, & Shu, 2012; Lai M, 2013; J. N. Zhang, 2013), but they have never touched the topic of how the academic work changes under the impact of academic promotion policy.

Research questions

As mentioned before in last section, there are knowledge gaps in the aspect of understanding the impacts of academic promotion policy. In order to increase our scholarly understanding of the impact of performance-based management, especially the performance-based academic promotion policy, on academic work, we should study the impacts of the current academic promotion policy on academic work in China’s context should be carried out. Therefore, this study is designed and carried out to fulfill this aim. The objectives of the study include:

  • to describe the current policies and practices of the university academic promotion in China’s context;
  • to explore the perceived effects of academic promotion on academic work, including different activities: research, teaching and social service; 
  • to understand the ways and the extent the policy and practices of academic promotion may influence academic work; 
  • to provide some implications for policy-making.

Therefore, the research question of this study is:

How do the policies and practices of current university academic promotion influence academic work in China’s context?

Sub research questions:

1)        What are the policies and practices of the current university academic promotion in China and in B University?

2)        What are the effects of academic promotion on academic work in Faculty E in B University?

3)        In which ways and to what extent are the policies and practices of academic promotion affecting academic work in Faculty E?


Theoretical framework

In order to answer the research questions proposed above, the researcher has developed an analytical framework based on new institutional theory as shown by Scott (Scott, 2010). Scott (2010) maintained institutions are comprised of regulative, normative, cultural-cognitive pillars or elements, which provide the institutional environments to have impact on individuals’ decision-making and actions. If we understand the current academic promotion policy as an aspect of regulative elements, academics as social actors in institutions, academics work or academic activities as social actors’ actions in the institutional environment, we can use the framework of three pillars of institutions, which is proposed by Scott (2010), as the theoretical framework to understand and analyze the issue (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive guidelines for academic work


Case studies are the preferred method when:1) “how” or “why” questions are being posed, 2) the investigator has little control over events, and 3) the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon within a real-life context (Yin, 2014). In this research, the research question is a “how” research question. The researcher has little control over the effects of the policies and practices of university academic promotion, and the focus of the research is on a contemporary phenomenon within a real-life context. Hence, case study is an appropriate research method for this study.

Regarding that the research results or the lessons learnt from the single case are assumed to be informative about the experiences of academics in the average universities or faculties., as well as that the theory underlying the case study is the institutional theory, which is of a holistic nature, a single case holistic design was selected for this study.

The logic of selecting a case for this study is to find a representative or typical case that can represent a commonplace situation of a community of academics in China. Following this logic, the community of academics in Faculty E in University B was selected as the case. B University is one of the top 100 universities in China. Located in Beijing, the capital city of the country, it is a Chinese key university, well-known for its research on social science and humanity, especially on the disciplines such as education, Chinese literature studies and psychology. Faculty E is one of the biggest faculties in B University. It is also one of the leading institutions in educational field in China. The Committee of Human Resources (HR Committee) in each faculty is the decision-making body of evaluating and promoting academics at faculty’s level, consisting of the directors of departments and senior managers in the faculty. Currently, there are 19 members in the HR Committee in Faculty E, 17 full professors and 2 associate professors.

Multiple sources of data, including documents, literature and semi-structured interviews were used to collect data as to increase the likelihood that case is being understood from various points of view. The data of major national academic promotion policy documents in China covering the period since 1986, policy studies of that period, and relevant university and faculty documents in the case covering the period since 2009, news and existed literatures, which are relevant to the topic, were collected from September 2013 to December 2013.

Interview questions were designed differently for academics, university and faculty policy-makers, and a faculty manager (see Appendix 1 Interview protocol). The key questions for academics were related to academics’ personal perceptions of academic activities and conception of academic promotion, and their opinions about the expectations of conducting activities. Policy-makers’ interview questions dealt with the current academic promotion policy and rationales for policy-makings, at both the university’s and the faculty’s level. The interview questions for the faculty manager covered the topic of implementation at the faculty’s level, his perceptions of the current promotion policy. The views of policy-makers and managers provide complementary information for the literatures and document. This information was also used to cross check the results of the document analysis. For confidentiality and ethical consideration, all interviewees are anonymous in this study and were labeled with number, e.g. P1, M1, A1. (Policy-maker=P, M=Manager, A=Academic staff member).

Interviews for policy-makers and managers were taken from November to December 2013 in Beijing in China. Contact was established vie the introduction of a middle man, the vice dean of Faculty E. 1 university policy-maker (Interviewee P1), 2 faculty policy-makers (Interviewee P2, P3), 1 faculty middle manager (Interviewee M1) were asked if they were willing to participate in the study. All of them agreed to participate in the study.

The researcher invited all the 18 applicants (at faculty’s level) in the latest round of academic promotion in 2013 in Faculty E to accept interviews via email. 7 (38.9 %) academics accepted the invitation (labeled as Interviewee A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6, and A7). Interview of A6 was carried out on December 17, 2013, through face-to-face communication. The interview of A6 was an un-structured interview, which served as a key step to make preparation for developing the interview protocol. Other interviews of academics were carried out in April 2014 through telephone or email, with the researcher in Tampere, Finland and interviewees in Beijing, China. Before interviews of these six academics, a pilot interview was conducted through telephone (with the researcher in Tampere, Finland and the interviewee in Beijing, China), as to testify and to further modify the interview protocol.

A total of 11 interviews were carried out in Chinese, the mother tongue of participants. With the consent of 10 interviewees (except P1), the conversations were recorded and lasted from 40 minutes to 90 minutes depending on the availability of time and saturation of data obtained. Anonymity was assured. The interview protocol was used in all interviews. Field notes were taken during the interviews and after to record the setting, as well as possible observations about the interview context. After each interview, the researcher recorded her self-reflection of the interview, including her impression of the interviewees and interview, her self-evaluation of her interview performance, and suggestions for improvement in future interviews. Interview records were transcribed verbatim, and the transcriptions were translated into English when citations were needed. The interview data was complemented with information drawn from observations, field notes and gathered policy documents.

Data analysis involves ‘reducing and organizing the data, synthesizing, searching for significant patterns, and discovering what is important’ (Ary et al., 2002). Following Ary et al’s (Ary et al., 2002) suggestions for data analysis, the researcher carried out the data analysis procedures in three stages: organizing the data, summarizing the data and interpreting the data.

First, organizing the data: Coding was used to organize the data. The code categories were derived both from the interview protocol and the analytical framework. The field notes, transcripts and other qualitative data were coded and categorized. The researcher read all the data carefully, marked each unit (paragraph or sentences) with an appropriate code by using marginal labels. After all the data were coded, the researcher placed all paragraphs or sentences with  the same coding categories together, by cutting with scissors according to the codes and putting materials with alike codes together in a marked envelope. The constant comparative method was used to categorize data and further improve the coding categories. The researcher examined each new units of meaning to determine its distinctive characteristics, and then compared existed categories and grouped them with similar categories. If there were no similar units of meaning, a new category was formed.

Second, summarizing the data: the researcher examined all entries with the same code, merged these categories into patterns by finding links and connections between categories, and made some statements about relationships of categories in the data.

Third, interpreting the data: the researcher made generalizations based on the connections between categories, and evaluated the plausibility of some hypotheses that had evolved during the analysis.

Key findings

The major findings of the research are discussed as follows:

First, regarding the practices and policies of the current academic promotion in Chinese universities which is corresponding to sub-research question 1 (what are the policies and practices of the current university academic promotion in China and in B University?), the analysis reveals that academic promotion is a centrally-controlled system in China. Though the state has been decentralizing the authority of promoting academics to universities as well as to provincial governments since the 1980s, all policy-making is still top-down, i.e. academics are hardly involved in the policy-making process. Policy-makers in the B University claimed the practice of academic promotion in B University is a mixed approach with both top-down guidelines and bottom-up involvements but we can also notice that the top-down regulations have a more fundamental impact on deciding how many academics and which academics should be promoted. The voices of peer academics as well as of students are almost neglected in the evaluation of academics in promotion procedures. Top-down approaches constitute the base of the current academic promotion system, while inside the system, only very few approaches are bottom-up.  Basically, academic involvement in the decision-making of academic promotion only can be seen in the voting process in the faculty HR committee meeting and the external peer review. Even so, the external peer review does not have much influence on the decision-making results while the voting process in the faculty HR committee meeting only involve a few powerful academics rather than the majority of academics, held by interviewed academics.

Second, regarding the impacts of the current academic promotion policy on academic work, which deals with the second sub-research question (what are the effects of academic promotion on academic work in Faculty E in B University?), the analysis of the intended effects of the current academic promotion policy on academic work shows that the regulative guidelines for academic work from the current academic promotion policy and practices intend to guide academics in Faculty E to accord high priority to research, value the quality rather than quantity of research, cooperate with other researchers in a research group to do research, internationalize their academic activities, improve social engagement and perform managerial activities. We can notice that most of the intended effects have been realized, if we compare the policy-guiding activities with the real practices of academics. Under the regulative guidelines, interviewed academics have prioritized research, placed more emphasis on the quality of research, formed or joined research group and worked with other academics together to do research. Academics in Faculty E have been internationalizing their activities actively. Academics in Faculty E have also come to realize the importance of social service and participate in activities of social service.

Third, in terms of the way and the extent that the policies and practices of academic promotion affecting academic work in Faculty E (the third sub-research question), the comprehensive analysis of regulative, normative, cultural-cognitive guidelines for academic work has tried to provide a comprehensive answer. The analysis shows that academic work are guided by the varying constellations of regulative, normative, cultural-cognitive institutional pillars in the academic community. In other words, the current status of academic work is a product of the interactions between current regulative guidelines and policies for academic promotion, academics’ binding expectations and academics’ perceptions of academic work and conception of academic promotion. The current academic promotion policy does have impact on academic work, as mentioned in the last paragraph. However, not all the intended effects of the current academic promotion policy on academic work are fully realized. For example, though the policy intends to guide academics to perform managerial activities, the majority of academics try to avoid involving in managerial activities. Currently only one third of academics participate in managerial activities in Faculty E. It became also clear that not all these policy guided activities will persist. The analysis result shows that academics in Faculty E will continue internationalizing their activities, according high priority to research and involving in activities of social service. However, other policy-guiding activities, including joining a research group and doing research in the form of collaboration, publishing academic papers in international citation indices, and involving in managerial activities, might not persist in the future, for the reason that they are not supported by either the expectations of academic work (normative guidelines) or the academics’ perceptions of academic work and academic promotion (cultural-cognitive guidelines), or both. For example, though academics are required by the current academic promotion policy and normatively induced to form or join a research group and conduct academic activities in the form of collaboration, academics’ perception of academic work tell academics that this (collaboration of research) is not the best way for academics to do research because it has limited academic freedom. Academics might choose to quit working in a research group and begin to work individually in the future as to maintain their academic freedom. Interviewee A7’s story of quitting working in a research group is a good example to support this point. Academics in Faculty E are also doing some other activities under the impact of the expectations of academic work in the academic community and academics’ conception of academic work, which are not guided by the current academic promotion policy, i.e. balancing the needs of research and teaching and connecting research to teaching. Because these activities lack the regulative support in the institution, they are also fleeting and one day academics might stop doing them in the future. In regards of the future development of academic work, we expect that these fleeting activities might persist or disappear, depending on the changes of regulative, normative, cultural-cognitive pillars of the institution.

Actually, the study does not just provide answers to the three sub-research questions as shown above. Analysis of the regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive guidelines on academic work in Faculty E shows that the impact of the current academic promotion policy on academic work are in particular noticeable in three areas: evaluation criteria, research groups and involvement in management.

The research also exposes that fair and recognizable evaluation criteria to measure the quality of academic outputs are missing. Gradually academics come to realize that quality of research is more important than quantity, while a few years ago they were all racing to increase the number of publications. Unfortunately a lack of fair and recognizable evaluation criteria for research quality stalls their motivation of improving the quality of research. The interviewed academics were worried about the over-emphasis of international citation indices in evaluating the quality of publications and the under-emphasis of peer review. Besides, the evaluation of teaching quality is also neglected in academic promotion, which discourages academics’ motivation to perform quality teaching. The absences of clear, fair and recognizable evaluation criteria for quality gives leeway to the development of officialdom in academic promotion which may result in a loss of the academic spirit in academic ranks. Academic profession in China calls for a fair and recognizable evaluation system of the quality of academic outputs, which is based on peer review instead of bureaucratic logic, and takes both academics’ and students’ voice into account, instead of only the voices of senior academics and management. Also all different aspects of academic work, i.e. teaching, research and social service, should be included, instead basing academic promotion only on research output.

The imperfections of doing research in the form of collaborative work in research groups, which are widely criticized by interviewed academics, deserves our attention. It serves as a typical example of academics’ behaviors, which is formed under the mutual impact of the idea of new public management and Chinese traditional culture, but goes in an unexpected direction. The aim of working as a group instead of working individually is to use limited resources more effectively and productively. However, research groups in universities are formed under the impact of traditional values of ‘social groups’ in the danwei era, in which group members are connected through guanxi and are expected to be loyal and committed to the group leader. As a result, research group members feel hijacked by the traditional values of ‘social groups’ and have to contribute their academic outputs to their group leaders as to demonstrate their commitment to the group. Inbreeding relations especially the supervisor-ship (shimen relationship) have great impact not only on the daily academic work, but also on the promotion of academics. From a surface perspective, we observe that research activities are carried out in a more efficient and effective way, but if we look inside the research group, we can discern that academics not only feel depressed by limited academic freedom and over-workload, but also are incensed about the unfair distribution of research outcomes. The characteristics of ‘social groups’ feature heavily in research groups in universities, which makes ‘research group’ no longer a basic research unit in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. As a result, academics who persist with academic freedom and choose not to join a research group might be marginalized, whilst academics who join a research group might worry about their lost academic freedom and research outcomes. The competition for research projects and funding opportunities is originally introduced to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the use of resources; however, when the competition become a group-to-group competition, not a person-to-person competition anymore, it furthers the differentiation orders of research groups in the academic community, and even enlarges the disparity between powerful and powerless academics in the organization. If the situation continues, it might lead to the development of academic hegemony in a university, which has great influence on resources distribution as well as academics’ personal development.

The enforcement of managerial activities from the university management is another example that shows the lingering impact of Chinese traditional culture on academic profession. We can see from the case that faculty commitment is still highly valued by the university management, but academics are more eager to break the reckless of faculty commitment and to fully concentrate on the development in their disciplines. As mentioned before, this manifests that academics are evolving from danweiren to ‘academic worker’. Actually, Faculty E’s managers’ emphasis of faculty commitment in academic promotion as well as their expression of disappointment at the majority’s resistance to fulfill the management work reflects that the university management are anxious by the fact that under the impact of current performance-based academic promotion policy, academics become more self-centered and more independent from the organization, and intend to solely focus on their own performance. Indeed, it is difficult to make a judgment whether this transition of academic identity is a merit or not, if we consider the issue from the standpoint of the organization management: organization commitment is very important for an organization’s sustainable development. But one suggestion for the university management might be that university can diversify the ways of faculty commitment, instead of pushing academics to perform managerial activities, which is regarded by most academics as a distortion of academic work and a limitation of academic autonomy. For example, a possible solution could be to encourage academics to use the housestyle of the university when they are doing various activities.

The call for fair and recognizable criteria for the evaluation of the quality of academics’ performance, the reflection of imperfections of research groups and the conflicts of enforcing managerial activities in an institution all reflect the fact that academic profession in China is faced with the challenge of making a good use of managerial tools in the context of Chinese traditional culture. The research shows academic work in Chinese universities is changing under the impact of the current academic promotion system, but we also need to consider that whether the changes are beneficial, sustainable and suitable for Chinese academic profession.

Implications for further research

Finally, the researcher would like to propose some possible avenues for future research: first, we can extend the scope of the research to validate the applicability of the theoretical framework and gain further empirical insights in a comparative way. For example, the number of cases can be expanded and include more faculties from different disciplines in different levels of universities in China. It would be interesting to see differences and commonalities between different disciplines and different levels of universities, and it would be also interesting to see the whole picture that they depict of academic work in Chinese HE system. By doing so, the empirical breadth might expand. It would be also interesting to make a multi-county comparative study. For example, make a comparison with the same case study in an American university? Since most of interviewed academics mentioned the current Chinese He system is developing under deep impact of American system, it would be interesting to see the differences of impacts on academic work from the same approach in these two countries. Second, we can also extend the depth of the study of academic work. For instance, we can study the impacts on academics’ preference of research projects, research methods, teaching methods, and academics’ conception of teaching and learning relationship. It might be interesting to see how the academic promotion policy influence academics’ daily practices. Third, we can also do a follow-up study and revisit the selected faculty, since such a longitudinal approach is rare and would allow a more detailed study of the impacts of current academic promotion policy on changing academic work.


My master thesis as well as my master study could never have been completed without the help and support of a number of people. As the two years’ master study is coming to the end, I would like to express my gratitude to all who helped and supported me along this journey. In particular, my heartfelt gratitude goes to my thesis supervisors, Dr. Yuzhuo Cai (University of Tampere) and Senior Research Associate Andrea Kottman (CHEPS, University of Twente). And my special thanks go to the consortia members of the MARIHE program. Without their support, my dream of studying in Europe won’t have come true. I am deeply indebted to all the professors and lecturers in MARIHE program.


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