To Leave or Not To Leave (Academia)Posted: July 28, 2012
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.