Thursday, November 02, 2006

Academic strife in the UK

Today's Education Guardian has an interesting and somewhat depressing feature on the morale of British academics:

Two-thirds of academics want to quit, poll shows
Alexandra Smith
Thursday November 2, 2006
Nearly two-thirds (62%) of UK academics have considered quitting Britain to work overseas or leaving academia altogether for a better job in the private sector, new research reveals.

The biggest gripe among lecturers is bureaucracy, with one in three respondents saying they spent at least 16 hours a week on paperwork, the research by the University and College Union (UCU) shows.

The survey of more than 1,000 lecturers in UK universities also revealed that 47% have suffered ill-health because of their job and 55% would not recommend a career in higher education to their children.

The UCU said the report, released today, was proof that universities needed to act now to ensure that current and future lecturers were not forced out of the sector or put off altogether . . .
I find it quite a depressing read because enough of it rings true from the experience of some I know. Being a professional academic is such a prize because one gets the opportunity to devote one's career to what one loves doing, but the increase of administrative responsibilities for British academics squeezes further and further the amount of time one has for teaching and research. As far as I am concerned, I did not leave the UK because of stress or pressure or unhappiness in my job. Quite the contrary -- I was very happy in Birmingham and miss it very much and would happily have spent many more years there. I left because I had a good offer elsewhere and fancied a challenge and an adventure. Nevertheless, what this report says does to some extent echo my experience of university administration in the UK, which contrasts radically with university administration in the USA (or at Duke, at least). I would spend many hours every week in Birmingham on paper work and administrative jobs that could and should have been done by support staff, but were not because the support staff were overworked (and perhaps underpaid too). To take just one example, I was post-graduate admissions tutor in our department during the last couple of years I was in Birmingham and a large part of that job consisted in circulating the same forms around to different people, filling in those forms and writing many emails. It is not the academic decision-making that I am talking about, which must always involve academics, but the nitty-gritty of repeated form-filling and paper chasing, work that is increasingly getting devolved to academics because of the paucity of support staff to do those tasks.

I think that one of the problems in UK academia goes back to the fact that the computer revolution arrived at the same time that the Thatcher government were making their cuts in higher education. Academics coped with the difficulties by absorbing a lot of the work traditionally done by support staff, now that they had their own desktop computers. What higher education needs is some serious investment in order to free up more time for academics, and at the same time a lessening of the unnecessary elements of bureaucracy that take away some of the joy of working in higher education, a job that really is, on the whole, such a great privilege.

(I should make clear that I am fully aware that my own experience is unusual and skewed by the inevitable differences between working in an excellent British (largely) state-funded university and an excellent US private university.)

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