Different aspects of the academic profession have received growing attention in many parts of the world throughout the last decade. While the literature available provides quite a variety of cases, the experience of academics in a number of smaller peripheral higher education systems is still something of a ‘black box’. The Macedonian higher education system seems to be no exception in this regard.
Current discussions on the academic profession in Macedonia are predominantly based on anecdotal evidence and a few public commentaries by some members of the academic community, while no major theoretical or empirical investigations in the field of higher education exist (Vukasovic 2014). There is no study yet on the conditions of academic work or on the academic profession in general. Occasionally, the Macedonian higher education system is mentioned only ‘in passing’ as a presumably similar system with the other countries of former Yugoslavia – thus allowing limited space to capture its idiosyncratic developments in the last two decades.
If we use Teichler’s typology of higher education researchers, the majority of those who write on higher education in Macedonia are only “reflective practitioners” (Teichler 2005: 461). In this respect, higher education research in the country is still more a question of sporadic effort on the part of individuals rather than an organized or comprehensive effort. Unlike some other countries in the region (notably Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia), there is no institute, department or educational programme which deals exclusively with higher education research. Such absence of serious and systematic investigation of recent higher education developments, renders the Macedonian higher education system as one of the most under-researched systems across Europe.
It is against this backdrop that the academic profession in Macedonia deserves special attention. The main objective of this study is to explore major developments around the academic profession in Macedonia by examining the perceptions of academics in three key areas:
(1) Academic work and working conditions. In the first section I examine the perceptions of academics about a number of factors that compose and contribute to job well-being. The major issues to be addressed here include the academics’ assessment of working conditions (facilities, resources and personnel); allocation of workload; interest in teaching and research and actual use of time; additional employment; remuneration; and the social prestige of the academic profession.
(2) Vertical career mobility, horizontal career mobility (academic inbreeding) and research productivity. In this section I discuss first the commitment of academics to their choices of career by measuring their intention to make a major job change. This is followed by a discussion on the attractiveness of the academic profession both in terms of retaining current academic staff and recruiting new one. Hence, I investigate vertical career mobility by looking at the different paths of recruitment, the opportunities and expectations for advancement and promotion to a higher academic rank, as well as the transparency of the process and the compliance to the formal procedures. Moreover, I discuss an (informal) practice – commonly called ‘academic inbreeding’ - when universities hire their own graduates who subsequently remain employed at their Alma Mater for their entire careers. Here, I discuss the factors that contribute to the horizontal career mobility of academic staff and those that inhibit it. As high levels of academic inbreeding have long been assumed to have a damaging effect on scholarly practice I also test the hypothesis proposed by Horta (2013) that less mobile academics (inbreds) have lower levels of scientific productivity than non-inbreds.
(3) Higher education governance and influence of academic staff on decision-making. In the last section of this study I focuse on how academics perceive, interpret and evaluate recent attempts of reform in the higher education system and how these intended reforms influence academic values and practices. Moreover, I examine how decision-making power is distributed both on system and institutional level and if there has been a shift of power recently. In this section I consider the level of discrepancy between the reality and the rhetoric as well as the gap between the intended policy and its practical implementation.
For the purpose of this study, an online questionnaire of 33 (multi-item) questions was produced, broadly based on a previous survey on the academic profession in Europe (EUROAC) (see Kehm and Teichler 2013; Teichler and Hohle 2013; Teichler et al. 2013). In order to ensure a genuine comparability of the findings in Macedonia with a number of other countries where the EUROAC survey has been previously administered, the questions replicated from the EUROAC questionnaire were not alternated. However, a few additional questions (8 in total) that I found relevant in view of the local context and the idiosyncrasy of the Macedonian higher education system were added. On the other hand, some questions contained in the original EUROAC questionnaire that were perhaps less relevant to the thematic scope covered in this study were removed. Such strategic decision, among other things, considerably reduced the number of questions compared to the original EUROAC survey (53 questions in total), allowing (at least potentially) a more promising response rate.
The final version of the questionnaire was divided in three main sections, each of them closely (though not necessarily entirely) corresponding to structure of the main chapters in this study. An additional fourth section on personal background was placed at the end of the questionnaire.
Given that there is no central or comprehensive list of e-mail addresses of academic staff in Macedonia, they were collected manually from the institutional web sites. A problem in this respect was that a number of institutions (around 10%) had fairly outdated web sites with limited contact information. Nevertheless a sufficiently high number of e-mail addresses was collected (3070) which broadly corresponds with the total number of academics (3354) according to latest official data from the State Statistical Office (SSORM 2013). However, as this is not a complete list of all e-mail addresses, I was not able to utilize a simple random sample design. In view of the fact that e-mail addresses where collected based on their relative ease of access, a convenience (availability) non-probability sampling was used instead. An additional problem, partly specific to the Macedonian academic community, was that some of the official e-mail addresses provided on the institutional web sites are used or checked infrequently, as many academics prefer to use their personal e-mail addresses for professional correspondence.
On March 26th 2014, the questionnaire was sent out to all potential e-mail recipients, followed by two reminder messages in the following two weeks (April 1st and April 8th). The invitation e-mail letter briefly explained the main objectives of the study and the ways in which confidentiality and anonymity is maintained. My contact information was also provided to allow recipients to ask questions, provide comments or report technical problems with the survey. Furthermore, recipients were given the chance to opt out of future e-mails relating to the study. The survey was sent electronically using Lime Survey software. A relatively high fraction of e-mail addresses (450) immediately ‘bounced back’ as in-active. Out of the total number of invitations that actually made their way (2620), fully completed questionnaires were received from 487 respondents, yielding a response rate of 18.6%. Respondents who only partially responded to the survey were excluded from the sample.
For the purposes of data analysis independent variables were recorded in binary categories. Namely, based on the type of institution in which academic staff have their primary employment, I have created two categories: (1) academic staff working at public and (2) academic staff working at private institutions. Based on academic rank, academic staff have been collapsed into two main categories: (1) senior academics (consisted of all academics elected in teaching-scientific positions: docents, associated professors, full professors) and (2) junior academics (consisted of all academics elected in supporting staff positions: junior assistants, assistants and junior lectors). Finally, according to the scientific discipline, academics are classified in two broad categories: (1) social sciences, humanities and arts in one category as ‘soft sciences’ and (2) medical sciences, natural sciences, technical sciences and applied sciences as ‘hard sciences’.
Following a change of government in 2006, the higher education landscape has expanded beyond recognition, mainly as a result of a series of state initiated reforms focused on the process of democratization of access to higher education and the dispersion of higher education institutions (HEIs) – with new Faculties being added to the existing public universities in quick succession and two new public universities being set up in different regions within the country. The number of newly opened Faculties and HEIs has tripled in less than a decade, while the proportions of enrolment rates are increasingly rendering higher education an education for all. The multiplication of institutions (both public and private) and rising number of students also led to nearly a twofold increase in the number of academic staff for the same period. While the expansion of the system has been received somewhat positively, because of its potential to decrease educational disparities between regions and the possibility to provide more equal access to higher education, the abrupt expansion does not go unchallenged as it is frequently described in terms of quantitative success only.
Public criticism by Macedonian academics has been mainly addressed as regards the adequacy of the (uncontrolled) dramatic rise in enrolments and the erection of new Faculties and its far-reaching consequences for the quality of higher education on offer, particularly in view of the scarce state funding. Although the expansion of the system alone may not be the only cause for the deterioration of higher education standards, it is increasingly evident that working conditions have worsened largely due to such a rapid growth. While some private HEIs have managed to provide better physical conditions, the large majority of HEIs remain coping with antiquated equipment, outdated facilities, lack of space and minimal support towards research. The inadequacy of the infrastructure is mostly apparent in the newly opened dispersed public Faculties that lack even the most essential equipment and facilities for operation. Hence, lectures are often held in wedding halls, hotels, theatres and other venues that do not meet even the basic requirements for teaching. In such circumstances, the physical conditions for academic work at most HEIs are barely comparable to those found across Western Europe.
While an academic career provides a reasonably high level of social prestige, it does not always provide a reasonable standard of living. A precise evaluation of academic salaries is an extremely difficult task, as considerable variations in salary levels exist according to academic rank, even within the same institution, since Faculty units have a significant flexibility in creating their own pay scales. Academic salaries are not typically determined by reference to productivity or merit, but rather allocated based on academic rank, length of service and teaching loads. Unlike many senior academics, a full-time junior academic cannot afford what is considered to be a middle-class standard of living. An entry-level salary is hardly sufficient to support even the daily living expenses, and rarely exceeds the nation-wide average salary of 350 euros. The survey data gathered reveals a high dissatisfaction with salaries among junior academics (65.3%). Their senior counterparts reported fairly equally high dissatisfaction levels with their salaries (56.9%).
Basic salary alone does not provide a complete picture, since obtaining a reasonable income often depends on institutional bonuses and additional employment. Many senior academics that teach in public HEIs also hold part-time positions at the private sector. Some of them choose additional employment as a necessity, others simply because an opportunity has emerged. While additional employment allows academic staff to survive economically, it also means that only a few of them are able to devote their full attention to academic work. To reach a middle-class income level, many junior academics require additional employment, however, such positions are rarely available to them. Unless salaries at the lower end of the hierarchy improve, HEIs in Macedonia will struggle to attract the best and the brightest to choose an academic career.
The terms and conditions of academic appointments and opportunities for advancement are also of central importance for the future of the profession. Despite sporadic efforts to make the hiring process more competitive and transparent, academics are still often hired trough personal networks or political considerations.
According to the results of the survey, 24.2% of academics believe that promotions are not entirely based on achievements. Climbing the career ladder requires waiting and it is subject to a lengthy process, which nevertheless does not automatically guarantee promotion. Nearly a half (42%) of the respondents in the survey did not view the career opportunities of young academics as particularly promising and every second junior academic (51.4%) reported feeling insecure about their future employment. In such circumstances, the careers of many young academics are almost exclusively based on promises, but rarely on realistic prospects; potentially causing large-scale migrations to other professions.
The results of the survey indicate that an academic career is increasingly considered as a temporary choice only, as 43% of academics have considered the possibility of abandoning their academic career. Concerning the possibility of taking up an academic position abroad, if such an opportunity would arise, the situation is equally worrying. Almost two thirds (63.3%) of junior academics have considered taking up an academic position outside the country, while the same holds true for every second (52.5%) senior academic. The potential readiness of academics to abandon an academic career or to pursue an academic career abroad is not only indicative of the problematic situation, but also suggests realistic prospects of potential academic exodus.
In terms of governing the higher education system, while in many European countries the role of the state is diminishing, state authorities in Macedonia still assume a major role – with high presence even on the institutional level. The findings of the survey suggest that state interventionism is strongly present, as 70.9% of the respondents perceive that the extent of state influence is high. With the above reported high levels of state interference, it comes with little surprise that the overall financial and institutional autonomy of HEIs are considered low by 61.4% and 56.5% of the respondents respectively.
Although a number of state initiated reforms have been introduced recently, the actual change and transformation seem to have rarely occurred beyond cosmetic interventions. While many of the reform projects introduced by the state have been undertaken precisely under the motto of improving the quality of higher education, as high as 68.2% of the respondents considered that the quality of higher education has decreased in the last five years. The pessimistic overtone that prevails among the majority of academics might suggest that they respond to change more as a source of potential crisis, rather than one of opportunity. While some of the disinterest of academics to changes comes from negligence or the historical collective memory of the Humboldtian ‘good old days’ to which many academics hope to return, the sharp criticism of academics being voiced against almost all recent reforms partly explains why academics and HEIs have firmly resisted deeper change.
I am indebted to my academic advisor Dr. Manja Klemenčič from Harvard University, for all her contributions of time, interest, and many detailed insights on the topic. Needles to say, I remain solely responsible for the arguments put forward in this study. I am also grateful to Reactor Research in Action (http://www.reactor.org.mk) for their help in designing and disseminating the questionnaire.
Horta, H. (2013), Deepening our understanding of academic inbreeding effects on research information exchange and scientific output: New insights for academic based research. Higher Education, 65 (4): 487-510.
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