To Leave or Not To Leave (Academia)

There’s a post that’s been making the rounds from a University of New Mexico academic who is leaving to go to Google. Mark has blogged on it, and linked to a more positive post that reinforces why you would stay in the job, but my reaction to the original post is that there are far too many solid, scoring, points being made and, while it’s not gloom for the whole sector yet, there are large storm clouds hanging heavily over our heads.

I think that we’ve made some crucial mistakes that, on reflection, we need to address if we want to stop people leaving. Be in no doubt, when the storms come, yes, the casual workforce takes it in the neck but a lot of other people jump as well. They go somewhere else that supports them, inspires them, challenges them and does not make them wonder why they’re doing the job. It takes 10-20 years to produce a “useful” academic. Get the University climate wrong and they will pick up and leave. Will that work for everyone? No. It will work for your passionate, knowledgable, personable, approachable and amazing staff who will easily find work elsewhere.

Which, of course, leaves your schools and departments gutted of the firebrands, the doers, the visionaries and those who can inspire and lead the rest of us to the same level. I believe that we can all lift to the level of these great people – if we can remain in contact with them. Take them away and we stagnate. We all know, deep down, that bad cultures come from uninspired people, and uninspired people are uninspiring. Gut a school enough and you will have a terrible time of rebuilding it. But what happened?

I think that we made three terrible mistakes.

  1. We let people cut our funding and we all just worked harder.
    If you can cut the amount that you pay the worker, while keeping the same productivity level, why on earth would you pay them any more? You separate the worth of the activity or the person from the value that they produce and then you try to maximise your profits. Why do people keep cutting University and school funding? Because we just step up and work harder because we are committed to our jobs.
    What is worse, we not only work harder at our real jobs, we do all of the extra stuff as well.
  2. We did all of the admin on top of our real jobs, which include mentoring, guidance, teaching, learning, research, and so on.
    This is the crazy thing – not only are we all working harder meeting imposed metrics and standards, we’re also filling out countless forms, sitting around in meetings arguing about paperclip purchase optimisation (or similar) or sitting through yearly regurgitations of what we’ve done, delivered by other academics who can’t manage, and we do it almost as hard as we do the things that we get paid to do as academics.
  3. We didn’t sit down and weigh up the future cost of steps 1 and 2.
    And here’s the killer. Because we’re doing 1 and 2, and because the sky hasn’t fallen and education is still happening, administrators and funding bodies would be crazy to not try and push this further in order to see if they can get even more savings out and still maintain the same levels. This is fundamental business practice – pay the least that you have to for your supplies, charge the most that you can for your product.
    Ultimately, this will kill us. We are have gone from comfortable, to lean and mean – now we’re heading towards starvation. Rather than worrying about this, we stand and admire ourselves in the mirror like mentally ill thirteen year-olds, congratulating ourselves on how good we look when we are starting to lose important function – irreversibly. The fat, such as it was (and I think that has been overplayed for political reasons), is gone. Now we’re cutting muscle and organs.
    Governments talked about tight times, funding bodies talked about financial crises, business found cheaper overseas workers, off-shoring meant that local investment started to dry up – we listened, we nodded, we said “Ok, we’ll keep going” and we sent completely the wrong message.
    Universities take 10-20 years to train academics, but the impact of a drop in educated populace takes about the same time to really have an impact on the workforce. This is well beyond the average lifespan of an elected official and it’s not as direct as the “in your face” nature of a tax increase. But this is our fault, to and extent, because we know that this is a problem and, as a group, we took it.

I had an argument with someone the other day about the role of academics and they were, I think, angry with me because I placed pedagogy and learning quality as a higher priority than convenience of access to the students. Of course, I want everyone to have access to Uni but if what we are teaching is not of sufficient quality then there is no point coming! As a teaching academic, this should be my job. Social equity, access to University, increasing mobility and improving the school systems? That’s the government’s job, the government’s purse, working in association with the schools and universities – I welcome it! I support it! But I have neither the funds, the influence or the training to actually do this. Yet, because of shortfalls elsewhere, as our funding is cut, as the casual workforce grows, as we all work harder , more and more of the things that are not core fall on me and my colleagues.

This is a fantastic job. This is an important job. Universities, in whatever form, are vital to the future and development of our species – when they are run properly and to a high standard. I do not think that all is lost, but I am rapidly reaching a point where I think that we have to stop taking it, look at those crucial three mistakes and say “No more.” Funding bodies, administrators and, on occasion, we ourselves are devaluing ourselves through our professionalism, our dedication and our politeness. Yes, we need to be pragmatic but we have worth, we do a good job and we are part of an essential role: education must be maintained.

My priority is to my students and my colleagues, and to the future. I think that it’s time for some serious re-thinking.


6 Comments on “To Leave or Not To Leave (Academia)”

  1. stephaniedi says:

    I totally agree. I have often wondered when/why the public began to lose respect for academics and learning. Is it because education has become a means to an economic end? You are so right that it is up to us to reclaim that respect. As long as we allow ourselves to be “sold short,” we are active participants in the degradation of education. Bravo to you!

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    • nickfalkner says:

      There are so many aspects of what educators do that are hard to accurately measure. However, the moment we start talking about money we start worrying about “value for money” and then the negotiation starts to get the same service for less.

      There is, I believe, a minimum educational standard – but it is “excellence”. We can’t really measure that or its components, so we measure what we can, optimise that or have it shaped for us, and make all sorts if financial decisions based on these false metrics. And, unsurprisingly, this doesn’t really relate to excellent teaching so we tell people that they can fiddle with the funding at no cost to education.

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  2. Peter Kelly says:

    I came across the UNM post a couple of days ago and I have to say that I strongly agree with most of what he had to say.

    As you know, I’ve recently left academia to start my own company, though I plan on returning to university life at some point in the future. I think universities are great places to work – I love teaching, and I love doing research, but I think that in the current environment the logistics of being able to get sufficient time and resources to focus on doing these properly are just a nightmare.

    While it’s easy to blame the university or the ARC, I think the root of the problem lies with the Australian government. As a country, we simply don’t place enough emphasis on either education or scientific research, and there is way too little money coming into it. When the money gets scarce, everyone starts competing with each other to get it, and you end up with it becoming extremely challenging for researchers (esp. ECRs) to get funding.

    Case in point: ARC discovery grants. If you have an idea that you want to start working on, you prepare a research proposal, submit it and wait around 6-9 months for a response, and if you’re in CS your chances of success are 16% (according to a recent paper I read). And even if you’re successful, you can’t use the money to fund your position at a university – you’re only allowed to use it to buy equipment and hire *other* people to do the actual work. You separately have to try and convince a university to give you a position, which they might, but even then you’ll only be supervising the research and not doing it yourself. Yes, there are fellowships also, but they’re even harder to get.

    My reaction to this? Just forget it. It’s too hard.

    One of the reasons I decided to start my own company is that, provided I had a good enough product idea, I figured it was actually going to be *easier* to generate income to support my research activities (with a definition of “research” that is expanded to include that which is done in support of commercial product development) than it would be to try and get funding from the ARC and do research at a university. If all goes well, I hope to get some time in the next year or so to write up some of the work I’ve done relating to my app which I think is of sufficient novelty to warrant a few papers, and I want to remain involved with the academic scene to the extent possible. However I’m actually finding the product development and business aspects quite exciting as well. Obviously this is all involves a huge amount of financial risk, which many people (esp. those with families to support) aren’t in a position to take.

    So while I like universities and would love to return to the sector for the majority of my career, there are some really fundamental flaws that are ultimately up to the government to fix if they want to maintain a strong contingent of researchers in our universities. I really wish the higher levels of university management would do more to lobby the government on this issue, because it’s vitally important to our future.

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  3. Liz Phillips says:

    What you say about academics picking up the slack in all things is true. We even pick up the work of slackers in the department if it means maintaining the foundation of our work. I am not head of my department. As a matter of fact, to cut conflict within the department, the position of department head was remove five years ago. I used to want that figurehead position, but when I stand back and observe, I realize I don’t want in the middle of all the petty tiffs other educators perpetuate. I attend whatever meetings I must, and then I devote my time and attention to what is most important…delivering top-notch instruction and experiences for 100 twelve-year olds. When someone in my department refuses to take care of something that impacts my work with my students, I pick up the slack. To not do so, is malpractice. Fortunately, my administrator recognizes that, so he works very hard to give me what I need. I won a grant op with a high-dollar value that would require the cooperation of many people in the building, and he had to say it was not going to work. I was frustrated because I was willing to give freely of my time and even drop other stuff, but he was very clear that others would not do the same.

    Yesterday, I turned down the grant money.

    Something else has already come up, and I can accept that adventure because the grant will not weigh on my time.

    Mediocrity is deadly. I worry about it creeping up to my classroom door to cover my students. They want to learn, want to make the world a better place. That keeps me in the classroom. The money, validation, and accomplishment I could earn elsewhere might eventually prompt me to leave my classroom, but I just cannot do it right now. I am worried about the Big M covering my students if I do.

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  4. […] recently posted about some of the issues that we face in Academia and, being honest, they aren’t small problems and they aren’t […]

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