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Recruitment strategies and promotion of staff – A comparative glimpse from a Swedish university
Göran Melin © May 2007

The paper describes promotion and recruitment strategies at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. To date, a survey and several interviews have been undertaken. In addition, international comparisons with other European technical universities are made. This Swedish example may also be of relevance to other universities which recognise issues of recruitment and career as being of key importance for dynamic scientific development.

1. Promotion to professor

Since 1998, Swedish universities must promote staff from the middle position lecturer to professor when certain scientific and pedagogical qualifications have been accomplished. The exact level of these qualifications differs slightly between the universities as some local criteria are allowed, but they are still the same through the country and usually meet international standards for becoming a professor.

The purpose behind this regulation was that many teachers and researchers have over time accumulated enough qualifications to become professor, but as long as there was no available position to apply for, they had to remain lecturers. Some lecturers could very well have higher qualifications than the professor at the department or the unit, if the professor had not qualified him- or herself very much since he/she took up the professorship. Eventually, this was deemed unfair and the need arose to create more of a career structure in the academic system to provide the necessary incentive for staff to continue to qualify themselves and with the possibility for all to become professor, when the requested qualification level had been achieved.

In practise, it is really the title of professor that is earned. No new position is created, instead, the present position as lecturer is changed to that of professor but no new resources are provided. A slight raise in salary is however normal, but seldom of significance, and seldom more than that. It is really a promotion of solely academic value, like all academic titles. In Sweden there are three academic titles for scientific staff: Doctor (PhD), Docent (Associate Professor), and Professor. However, the academic titles one can earn do not always match the job positions. One can have either a PhD title or a docent title and occupy a lecturer position, but one can also have other kinds of positions. And, hence, one can be professor without having another situation than one had as lecturer. Simply a bit more status. Thus, the academic title one has is one thing, but the job position one has can be another.

2. Evaluation of the promotion order

The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (KTH) has recently commissioned an evaluation of the career structure and recruitment strategies presently in use at the university. KTH, Sweden’s largest technical university, wanted to evaluate how the promotion system had functioned so far, but international comparisons and foresight were also requested. The circumstances at KTH are also likely to be of interest to other universities which may face the same situation, and need to deal, at least in part, with similar career- and recruitment related problems.

A questionnaire was sent out to all promoted professors at KTH as well as all staff on lecture positions. Several interviews were also made in order to get a deepen the understanding of the circumstances and opinions expressed in the questionnaire.Finally, contacts were made with a few European technical universities, mostly in the Nordic countries, but also in Switzerland and the Netherlands in order to find out what policies and strategies they use regarding career and recruitment of key personnel. Not all could contribute with information, but many did.

Based on the questionnaire results, a few conclusions can be made.

  • The lecturers believe that it will be easier to get research funding once they become professors. This expectation seems unrealistic when looking at the answers of the already promoted professors. They have not experienced much ease in the struggles to get funding for their research after they got promoted. As much as fifteen percent of the professors even state that it had become more difficult to get funding after their promotion. The lecturers furthermore expect that there will be a shift of balance in their teaching duties, from classroom teaching to more supervision. They generally expect to have more influence over their own teaching situation. This expectation can prove to be true, especially regarding the shift form classroom teaching to supervision, but it is not certain that their influence as such will increase.
  • Besides the internally promoted professors there are professors who are recruited from elsewhere in Sweden or from other countries. This category of professors may or may not have different resources than the promoted ones; Unquestionably, their position to negotiate with the university for such resources and salary is better than that for the promoted ones. Lecturers, more often than promoted professors, think that there are differences between promoted professors and recruited professors when it comes to salary, working conditions and status. However, few think that there are differences in terms of competencies, something which otherwise could motivate differences regarding salary, working conditions and status.
  • The merits and requirements needed in order to get promotion to professor are regarded as fair by most respondents. There is a slight tendency that the requirements for scientific qualification are seen as high rather than low, while the requirements of pedagogic qualifications are seen as neither high nor low. There is also a slight difference between men and women with women more often regarding especially the pedagogical requirements to be high. It is to be noted that there is no indication that the requirements would in any case be too high or too low.
  • A majority of the respondents think that there has been a reasonable number of promotions as well as recruitments of professors since 1998. A share of the respondents do however think that there have been too many promotions and too few recruitments. Only very few think the opposite. There is thus a tendency among the respondents that there have been too many promotions and too few external recruitments.

There are also other conclusions that can be made which are of a structural kind and relate to the goals and ambitions that KTH has, and the structure and facilities that are in place to support the fulfilment of these goals. Many Swedish universities share the problematic situation that KTH faces in this respect, and it is likely that universities in other countries occasionally do so as well.

  • There is no clear entrance position into an academic career. A range of more or less temporary and restricted positions are available for candidates after the PhD-graduation. Some of these positions provide good opportunities to pursue an academic career, others less so. The employment situation is often insecure and it is not certain that the most talented PhDs will be tempted to start a career within academia.
  • The balance between promoted and recruited professors are oblique, and more so over time. In the present system, a very large part of the staff will sooner or later become professors. As promotion is directly dependent on a permanent position as lecturer, there are few mobility incentives except for the younger staff. With time, there will be more professors who have no other working conditions than they had as lecturers, and there will be fewer available positions to which external recruitment of professors is possible. Thus there is a risk of “inbreeding” of the staff.
  • Generally, the number of staff on all levels in the system is large. As soon as new resources are available, new people are allowed to enter various temporary positions. The consequence is that the resources are poured evenly but thinly over the entire staff. Most researchers barely survive and may not work under optimal conditions. The system is also sub-optimal from the university’s perspective.

3. International comparison

Comparisons were mainly made with Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden, and with NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, ETH Zürich, Switzerland, and EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Contacts and information exchanges were also made with other universities in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and the Netherlands.

Especially the example of EPFL in Lausanne served as an inspiration, primarily for two reasons: (1) only a few years ago, in 2000, EPFL launched a new career and recruitment strategy; thus, EPFL has gone through the internal process of transforming its own system and has managed to make what was considered necessary although painful changes in order to remain strong as a technical university also in the future; (2) the new strategy pays significant attention to the recruitment of junior staff, something very different from the Swedish situation and thus shows an alternative road which may be explored.

At EPFL, there is a careful selection of junior staff for positions as assistant professors. Applicants need to have spent significant periods at other universities, preferably abroad. An international experience is thus more or less required. Nobody is recruited as assistant professor unless the university believes that the applicant will succeed and eventually reach the position of full professor. In contrast to the Swedish system, where junior staff are recruited easily, and with the idea that the best ones will survive while the rest will sooner or later leave (or be forced to leave) by themselves, assistant professors are not recruited easily at EPFL. Those who get positions are given comparatively good possibilities to succeed; after six years there is an evaluation, and if the candidate is proven qualified, s/he will be appointed as professor on a permanent position. Those who do not pass are supported with two additional years during which they can apply for other positions elsewhere. 70-75% pass the evaluation.

ETH Zürich uses a similar system. If any difference, such a reputed university may be even more careful in its selection process and apply even harder criteria regarding international experience and merits, for instance.

At NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, recruitment of foreign key personnel is also taken seriously. The university has come to the conclusion that it is difficult to compete with other more renowned universities, perhaps with a more attractive location, by paying higher and higher salaries. Such a policy would lead to very large differences in terms of salary between Norwegians and foreigners, and thus create tension at the university. Instead, NTNU tries to support recruited professors with good research facilities and an attractive research environment. NTNU has high ambitions and all recruited scientific staff must have experience from another university, preferably abroad.

4. Towards an efficient and sustainable system

For the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, there is a lesson to be learned from the evaluation that has been undertaken: one should not only look at the professor level when thinking about recruitment strategies and career structures. It is indeed important to have well-developed strategies for the recruitment of highly qualified key individuals on the top level, and a functional system for the promotion of staff through the system. But, it is furthermore important to have a careful strategy for the recruitment of junior staff, right after the PhD graduation, or in any case after a subsequent postdoc period. Such young researchers should not be recruited carelessly. On the contrary, they should be carefully selected and only those who the university believe have the talent to become future professors ought to be employed. And, once employed, it is certainly more efficient to allow them to develop their teaching and research under good conditions, than to expect them to work under sub-critical conditions and with time see who are the toughest and most prevalent.

The development of an efficient and sustainable career structure and recruitment strategy gives a crucial competitive advantage to any university that wants to be placed in the higher levels of academic institutions worldwide. It is important to attract key individuals to the university, and it is important to keep valuable staff. As the competition for funding rises, and the cost of holding a leading position on the research fronts increases, there is lesser room for careless employment policies and bad management. Universities need to take better care of their staff, and provide them with decent working conditions and resources. Possibly, at least in the Swedish case, this means a reduction in staff, but better working conditions where they are more likely to be successful. In the long run, it is too expensive not to take this step.

Universities which fail to undertake necessary changes in this respect are likely to face major problems as they will be stuck with high costs for a workforce that is provided with sub-optimal conditions and where talents will move to better places. Possibly, in the future, there will be a clearer division between those universities that are successful, and begin to move in an “upward spiral”, and those that are not, and start sliding into a “downward spiral”. Once in a negative motion, it may be very difficult to change direction. The potential success of any given university is closely connected to a chain of funding-results-reputation – and more funding. Motivated talented individuals on all levels in the system make the difference. Well developed policies are needed in order to maximise the benefit from these individuals.