Academics Anonymous

Finally managed to get this up and around the blog.co.uk censors >:-[, although I’ve had to remove a few links, though you’ll find the unedited article on my education blog, here. I mean I see posts all the time on this site that are blatant adverts for stuff, which don’t get blocked! :??:

The Guardian has brought out a series of articles out recently called “Academics Anonymous”. This series has included an expose of all sorts of shenanigans that have resulted from the defacto privatisation of UK universities that has been creeping in since 1992. As I’ve discussed previously, the UK HEI sector is becoming increasingly commercially orientated.

There has for example been a move towards greater use of temporary contracts for teaching staff, including increasingly the use of zero hour contracts. This places junior members of staff in a much more precarious financial position, which is I suspect hardly in the interest of students now paying £9,000 a year in fees. Indeed many young academics do take the view that the ladder seems to have been pulled up on them.

Furthermore universities have begun to prioritise money making and chasing research grants ahead of teaching. Attend an interview for any of the diminishing number of permanent full time posts available in any UK university and you are guaranteed to be asked questions about how you plan to bring in money. I’ve heard tales from some Russell group uni’s of lecturers and professors who have been set targets of many hundreds of thousands in revenue per year and up to ten published papers per year.

All this is in pursuit of meeting REF (research excellence framework) targets. These targets are more often than not set by over-promoted mandarins in senior management positions, who use such “targets” to rank and yank staff, as well as justify their excessive salary. And those who fail to comply with such whims have been threatened with “career harming consequences”.

This inevitably leads to the situation where teaching of undergraduates isn’t prioritised and where some research universities have become little more than PhD mills, churning out far more PhD and post-graduate students than there is demand for. Which in turn leads to large numbers of such graduates who struggle to find work.

Obviously such target setting and box ticking ignores the fact that different people have different strengths. Some academics make good researchers but terrible lecturers, some are the other way around and a lot are somewhere between the two. But this one size fits all system doesn’t take that into account. It also means good skilled teachers find their experience is not valued and struggle to get employed.

I have some experience of this myself as my own contract was due this summer. In one research led university I know I was pipped to the job by someone younger than me, who had no prior teaching experience (and not terribly good English!) purely because of recent research activity (inevitably as I’ve been in a teaching heavy role the last few years I’ve not had time to do much publishing). Now if this this was a research post, I could understand, but put yourself in the shoes of a student in that department (or the parents paying for it!), who would you rather have teaching you?

And what really has the UK academic community worried is that these trends suggest that the practices of American universities are increasingly being copied by UK uni’s. And across the water we hear all sorts of a sordid tales of exploitation, overwork and poor pay for junior staff, tales of respected teaching professors dying in poverty and of students under so much financial pressure they’ve been forced to take up jobs as strippers.

In short, if I had a sibling of university age I would be sitting them down right now for a good long talk about what they wanted to do. I would only recommend they apply for a place in a research orientated university if they planned to become an academic. And if this was their goal they needed to accept up front that they would have to be pretty darn good and willing to work very hard to achieve this.

For the reality is that in most of the UK’s research led universities, much of the day to day teaching will be handled by overworked and underpaid supply teachers or PhD students. The only way you’ll see an actual professor is if the student bumps into them in the corridor….and in fact given that many departments are increasingly switching to open plan offices off limits to students, a student would have to get a job as a cleaner or a student advocate in some uni’s if they want to see a professor!

By contrast many of the UK’s mid ranking universities provide much better support to teaching (as a glance at the NSS scores will reveal). Of course practices vary from institution to institution. Certainly if I did have a sibling going to university I would be keen they attend an open day and ask some of the ten awkward questions the UCU suggests prospective students and their parents should ask. These questions cover such obvious things as “will I be taught by an actual professor or some supply teacher on a zero hours contract?” or “what is the ratio of permanent teaching staff to students?”

Or another alternative is to go to a university in Ireland and Europe, which are less commercially orientated, operate according to more traditional lines (e.g. less use of contract workers for teaching, greater academic freedom, etc.) and often have either no fees or much lower fees. Indeed many UK students are now increasingly choosing to study in European universities, in particular Ireland and Holland.

In short if what UK universities are for is to teach we ain’t doing a terribly good job! And they are being increasingly “found out” by students and parents both at home and abroad.

Others would argue that universities exist to do research. This is important to academics, as research allows us to keep up to date with the latest developments. After all you don’t want to be given a lecture on Communications Technology where the lecturer claims that this much fangled “internet” thing will never catch on and the remote analog phonograph proposed by a Dr Graham Bell will offer much improvement on Morse code :)).

However this target setting and money chasing is completely missing the point, after all there are other ways of keeping up to date. For example I usually spend a couple of hours each week just reading through the latest scientific literature…and about half that time is spend wading through a mass of research papers that are just a rehashing of something published (often by the same team) a few months earlier :zz:, or stuff that could have easily been included in a prior publication. i.e. many academics are increasingly going for volume over quality.

And worse several of the “academics anonymous” articles raise concerns as to a rise in academic dishonesty (e.g. researchers under pressure to hit targets “massaging data” or plagiarising the work of others).

Another article points to the rise in independent research labs, which now in more than a few cases perform the sort of research we’d normally expect from universities. In my field of renewables we work with quite a few such labs actively working on technologies such as high voltage battery storage, fuel cells, Building integrated renewables, etc. And after all, much of the computer industry grew out of a series of garages in the San Francisco bay area. The aviation and automotive industries have similar roots in the barnstorming era.

Traditionally such labs and universities have occupied very different areas. Universities tended to focus on research at a relatively low level of technology readiness, or research with no immediate commercial applications, e.g. “whacky” new ideas or studying the mating habits of fruit bats in the Amazon. Corporations tend to focus on stuff close to commercial deployment, while independent labs tend to fill the gap between the two.

However, as research at the early development stage tends to have a higher risk of failing to produce anything substantive (the bulk of whacky ideas prove not to work) they are thus less likely to produce measurable outcomes. So many universities have tended to bypass such research. It’s therefore not so much a case of independent labs trying to eat the lunch of universities, but uni’s trying to eat their lunch and failing at it.

I have been able to secure a permanent contract with my university, indeed I received another offer from a different university (clearly someone values me!). But I also got an interview with a private software company, which I turned down. It would have seen me doing a mix of research, consultancy and teaching (i.e. very much like my current role as a lecturer). It occurred to me how a private company could basically do much of what universities do but at a fraction of the overhead costs, yet still pay me more (although it would have required me to move to Horsham :oops:).

Corporations also have few problems offering permanent contracts, perhaps because they realise that if you want to retain good staff, there is a need for some quid pro quo, offering skilled staff good pay and the security of a permanent contract…..Or perhaps this is because private companies live in the real world of capitalism, while the mandarins in charge of UK universities operate in a cartoon version of capitalism, forgetting in the process that they are supposed to acting towards the public good :no:.

In many respects, the creeping privatisation of the UK HEI sector has resulted in a repeat of the situation seen in other privatised public services – the same sorry tale of falling standards, a higher cost to the public of that service and the of the provision of that service (water services are supposed to fix leaky pipes not impose hose pipe bans!) is being lost amid the profit motive.

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5 thoughts on “Academics Anonymous

    • Agreed but I try and propose we do research on a some new wacky concept the response is, what’s the angle, who is going to fund it. I could say money isn’t everything but I think that just won’t compute to the management of the uni and thinking I was a witch trying to enchant them with some spell they’d wall me up in back of the old chemistry lab.

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    • It was leaving me a bit depressed all the running around, and meant among other things I wasn’t blogging more regularly, nor was I able to make any long term plans. So at least I can now do that.

      On the downside, it does mean more work. My new post now means I’m eligible to do various things such as be director of studies for PhD students or take the lead on certain projects or course admin…still better to have a permanent job!

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