6 August 2014

The role and challenges of second-career academics

By Ong Liap Teck

The institutionalisation and teaching of business knowledge first started in France, Belgium, and Italy in the 18th century. The concept of business education was adopted in the USA about a hundred years later with the establishment of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881. Business education became a global phenomenon about a century later due to various reasons relating to the needs of business and society. This has made business a major field of study in higher education globally.

The focus in business studies also provided an alternative or second career option for business professionals so that throughout the world and in Malaysia, business practitioners have been recruited as academics in schools of business. Known as second-career academics, they bring with them practical experience and insights on current business practices into academia. They can offer valuable industry links, new ideas for improving pedagogy and insights for assuring the relevance of research initiatives within the academic world.

Second-career academics are therefore an important component of the teaching faculty as business schools compete to produce qualified executives and managers demanded by the job market. Technically and behaviourally competent, practically oriented executives who are innovative and have a sense of social and ethical responsibility are the criteria high on the list of many organisations. The presence of experienced business practitioners within the academic system is therefore essential in helping to fulfil these demands.

It is important to have experienced, qualified and professional staff within higher education. International accrediting bodies for business schools such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International), Association of MBAs (AMBA, UK), and European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) require mandatory engagement of practice-experienced academics within business schools. This has secured a space for second-career academics in business education.

According to a recent report by AACSB International, there are 52 schools of business in Malaysia. Considering the importance of business to the nation’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), it is important to appreciate the role these business schools are playing for our future. Moreover, with the 10th Malaysia Plan to transform the country into a high-income knowledge-based economy by 2020, and the National Higher Education Strategic Plan to promote Malaysia as a regional educational hub for higher education, seasoned business practitioners will have a significant contribution in producing the best minds.

On the other hand, business schools everywhere are facing staff shortage, reduced funding, increased regulation, and the burdens of external ranking and professional accreditation. This is also true in Malaysia. Second-career academics are expected to perform within this institutional context and contribute to the reputation and sustainability of business schools.

However, very few studies have been conducted pertaining to the experience and performance of second-career academics. While academia has long been a second-career option for business practitioners with considerable industry experience, their career transition is fraught with challenges.
Research has shown that second-career academics face significant issues in meeting the performance requirements of the academic world. In my research, I am exploring these issues in the specific context of business schools.

I have interviewed second-career academics across various types of higher education institutions in Malaysia. My research has led me to identify a number of favourable and unfavourable factors affecting their experience and performance in academia. Among the favourable factors is appreciative feedback from students, especially for their contributions towards preparing students for the world of business.

But there are several unfavourable factors too. Second-career academics experience a culture shock when they move into academia. Moreover, they feel undervalued. They feel that their practical experience is not adequately recognized in terms of their position in academia and their terms of employment. This produces a feeling of discordance and negatively affects their experience.

Knowledge of such favourable and unfavourable factors is essential in designing appropriate support mechanisms for second-career academics in business schools. Without such support, there is a possibility that these second-career academics may underperform, make limited contributions, and perhaps not last long in academia.

In conclusion, there is a need to consider the career appraisal process while recruiting second-career academics so as to determine their positions and roles more realistically. There is also a need to revise the current academic performance management systems to take into account the particular value they are able to add to student learning and research engagements. But one of the first things business schools need to do is to introduce an improved induction and orientation process for second-career academics. This ought to include measures such as mentoring and counselling to mitigate the negative impacts of the cultural shock that comes with such a career transition.

Ong Liap Teck is a lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design and a part-time PhD student at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached at long@swinburne.edu.my