Academic careers are an important aspect of higher education policy and practice. A high-quality academic workforce – spanning both teaching and research positions – provides major inputs into relevant research publications and top-notch teaching practices. But it is also costly. As a result, the overall success of a higher education system depends to a great extent on well-selected and motivated academics, benefitting from attractive academic career opportunities, research environments, and efficient human resources (HR) policies.
Factors contributing to the precariousness of academic careers in Latvia
Despite significant reform progress, Latvia’s higher education system – spanning 16 state-funded and 11 private higher education institutions – is currently unable to exploit the benefits of a dynamic academic-career system. This can be attributed to three systemic issues: (1) the fragmentation of academic careers by work contracts into teaching and research streams, with the former being the predominant one; (2) the lack of clear career paths; and (3) weak internationalization.
The combination of these three factors contributes to precarious academic careers in terms of both workload and income. In 2021, Latvian public higher education institutions dedicated only 25% of their total expenditures to the remuneration of academic staff. This can be partly explained by the high prevalence of relatively low-waged hourly-based or part-time contracts among academics, especially for junior staff. To make a living, many academics work simultaneously at several institutions, including outside academia, which generates career instability.
Additionally, the development of academic careers is obstructed by a lack of systematic career planning, an absence of permanent core staff, the poorly defined tasks of core academics, weak internationalization, and the lack of a mandatory retirement age. The separation of funding into external and budget categories also creates disconnects in work plans and resource allocation.
These factors contribute to the low attractiveness of the academic profession in Latvia, which in turn leads to reduced numbers of PhD holders compared to other countries. According to Eurostat, in 2020 only 0.2% of Latvians aged 25 to 34 held a doctorate, compared to 1.1% on average in the European Union.
Recommendations for improving academic careers in Latvia
In order to tackle this issue, the Latvian government engaged with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support (DG REFORM) and the World Bank to design a new Academic Career Framework (ACF) intended to enhance the attractiveness and efficiency of the Latvian higher education system.
To mitigate the abovementioned issues, our report offers specific recommendations for the design of a new ACF:
- The role of core academic staff should be strengthened by securing full-time employment. This would in turn nurture the development of pedagogical work and the cultivation of good institutional practices. To manage the risk of neglecting other staff, the employment conditions of part-time and hourly-contracted faculty should be as transparent as possible, including the principles guiding consecutive fixed-term contracts.
- Reconsider academic promotion processes. This existing election process for promotion through the Professors’ Council is widely recognized as suboptimal, time-consuming, costly, and lacking transparency. The purpose of elections should be carefully reconsidered (especially in the case of junior positions, part-time positions, and short-term contracts) and the election procedure itself should be reviewed and aligned with international best practices. To mitigate the risk of any negative impact on the sector’s democratic and collegial culture, the role of academics should be expanded to ensure their participation in the strategic planning process within their respective working units.
- Back decision-making and the management of academic work and careers with data. Both the Ministry of Education and Science and higher education institutions should be collecting and analyzing staff data (such as workloads, working hours, and remuneration) to ensure that policies and institutional decisions are evidence-based. To mitigate the burden of increased reporting and the risk of inconsistent data collection, the process should be planned in collaboration with institutional representatives to ensure that it is done economically, and that collected data be used to support institutional decision making.
- Internationalization and mobility through HR planning should be increased. Both incoming and outgoing staff mobility are mechanisms that enhance the quality of a higher education system. While the mobility of non-Latvian staff to work in Latvia should be made a priority by revisiting the legal framework governing the use of the Latvian language in academia, institutional plans that facilitate outgoing academic staff mobility should be considered. Attention should also be paid to returning academics and options for their smooth re-integration into the Latvian higher education system. To mitigate the risk of unequal treatment, individuals should have the possibility of planning and conducting a mobility period without incurring any unfair sacrifices. And gender- and family-related factors should be taken into account.
A way forward
We recommend that the new ACF initially be implemented incrementally on selected pilots and strategically funded through development projects. This means that the government should put out a call for piloting higher education institutions or units as well as set up a funding instrument to support institutional change. As with any reform, successful implementation will greatly depend on financial resources invested (e.g., structural funds and budget funding) as well as on parallel and larger policy reforms in the higher education sector. With that, the recommended ACF can lead to the creation of more predictable, transparent, and sustainable academic careers, which are one of the main building blocks of any efficient and attractive higher education system. This model, while designed for Latvia, could serve as a model for other countries to follow that are struggling to reform and modernize their institutions in order to raise the quality of education and improve research performance.