Academics: the next generation

As readers of this blog will know, I believe that universities may over the next few years turn out to be very different places from what they were when I embarked on an academic career. Not all of the changes to date have been bad: when I started as a lecturer in Trinity College in 1980, most staff, in most departments, were by today’s standards entirely research inactive; students were predominantly from an upper middle class background; there was very little opportunity for anyone who was not very senior to discover what was going on, never mind have a say in it; a surprising number of professors were on second name terms only with junior staff; assessment of students was by exams only; and so forth. I was lucky, as I had a Head of Department in the late Professor Charles McCarthy who was really very enlightened, and who in particular pressed me to publish and gave me the time and space – but that was not the norm.

On the other hand, there was a spirit of inquiry amongst colleagues: in my Department we used to meet at 11 am every day for coffee and would have a discussion around an intellectual theme (not always related to the subject of the Department); everyone was on a permanent contract; pay wasn’t great, but academics were respected and sought out for their opinions; academic bureaucracy was almost unheard of; small group teaching was a realistic prospect; and so forth. As a young lecturer, I was nowhere near the levers of decision-making, but I was not an outcast either, and my career seemed on a clear trajectory (mind you, the assumption was that you couldn’t get promoted to the really serious posts until you showed the first signs of senility).

But now I sometimes wonder what we are offering the new generation of academics just beginning in higher education. It is not so much that the certainties have changed, there just don’t seem to be any at all. We have full-time researchers now, and quite a few of them, but with no real framework for their careers. All too often, people are appointed on fixed term contracts with no commitment as to what happens at the end of the term – and paradoxically, the Fixed Term Workers Act has made it less likely that they will get new contracts. The academic profession seems to be held in low esteem by the public at large, but maddeningly there seem to be no obvious reasons for this, as academics have not sold loans excessively, or fiddled expenses, or over-valued properties. And on top of that, I suspect we have still managed to keep the traditional sense of hierarchy intact, so that when academics get on the warpath, it is often to protect the acquired benefits of the traditional system, rather than the interests of the younger colleagues.

Of course academics of my generation deserve support and protection, but we may need to look more closely at the conditions experienced by the new generation: we need to ensure that the academic profession is attractive to those starting out now, so that they can make their contribution and ensure the sustainability of the academy. I suspect that people like me need to listen more to those whom, perhaps, we don’t always see as often. And we need to communicate what we hear to those involved in institutional and national decision-making.

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20 Comments on “Academics: the next generation”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    But this isn’t a new trend, by any means. The conditions you describe for ‘new academics just starting out’ are exactly as they were when I first began my academic career in the UK, almost 21 years ago. In September 1988 I began the first of a series of fixed-term contracts which kept me insecure – as a lecturer, not a researcher – for six years. Contract researchers had it worse, of course, with indefinite periods of contract after contract – and at that time there was rarely any such thing as bridging funds to pay contract researchers during gaps between the end of one contract and the start of another. Nor were they even entitled to redundancy pay until an industrial tribunal ruled that workers on fixed-term contracts should be.

    More than ten years ago, the then AUT started highlighting the statistic that more than 50% of staff in academic and related posts in higher education were on fixed-term and insecure contracts. I don’t think it’s improved at all since, so already we’ve had a generation of academics who’ve struggled to build careers under these conditions.

    (The newest thing, which friends still working in the UK HE system are alerting me to, is a trend towards allowing only the very best academics to have access to the kind of working conditions which favour research – reduced workloads, research leave etc – because the way the RAE now operates is promoting greater and greater selectivity. Newer, younger academics, and older ones identified as ‘research-inactive’, are essentially becoming teachers, not researchers. What will that mean for their future careers?)

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    You write:

    The academic profession seems to be held in low esteem by the public at large, but maddeningly there seem to be no obvious reasons for this, as academics have not sold loans excessively, or fiddled expenses, or over-valued properties.

    Do you see any relation between this lack of respect and the rise of the sort of “interested” research you advocated in a previous post? I do. If academics can no longer be assumed to be disinterested, there is no reason they merit any more respect than those in any other mercenary occupation. And there’s little reason for the public to accord the opinions of academics any more respect than those of anyone else.

    • Ernie, I’ll respond to the question you raised on the other post a little later. But in this context I think you’re wrong: I think some of the public unease is for the opposite reason. Rightly or wrongly, the public think we should be doing much more ‘interested’ research, not less. They think we’re stuck in ivory towers.

      • Alan Says:

        Perhaps the public unease is due to the perception of academia being a ‘protected sector’, that as things get relatively worse in the economy we will be the last to sweat?

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Our views are not irreconcilable. It could well be that the public thinks we should be entirely given over to ‘interested’ research because we were foolish enough to allow interested research into the universities in the first place so that the ‘ivory tower’ began to seem an inappropriate institution to maintain.

        It is important to point out that iInterested research is not possible without disinterested research on which it depends. No nuclear power without nuclear physics, no microelectronics without quantum theory. This is true of most of the great (and greatly profitable) innovations of the past 100 years.

        Ireland, in its rush to eliminate all but interested research (“can you eat it?”), will insure that the next great (profitable) innovations come from elsewhere and are exploited there first.

        • Ernie. I agree that in many ways we are not far apart in our views on this. I might have a different view on whether ‘interested’ research should have been allowed in, but I agree wholly with the last two paragraphs of your comment.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I have to agree with Wendymr, this is not a new situation. I’m 10 years into my academic career, and although I’m fortunate enough to have a permanent post, what that actually means bears little resemblance to what it seems to have meant for earlier generations.

    The massive increase in both student numbers and levels of bureaucracy in the system means that I and all of my generation spend huge amounts of our time either dealing with students (small group teaching? Never done it. The smallest groups I’ve ever taught have been groups of 20), or dealing with the paperwork and ever-increasing demands of other aspects of the university. How much time did academics have to give to making school visits to promote their degree courses 20+ years ago, I wonder? That eats up days and weeks over each year, and it’s just one example.

    The end result of all this is that we do our research one day a week (in good weeks), at evenings and weekends. I’m currently working 12 hour days to try and finish a project which I’ve also been working on every weekend since January. I’m taking one week’s holiday this summer, which will be the only holiday I’ll take in 2009. And all this to produce a piece of work which 10-15 years ago would have almost guaranteed a promotion, whereas now I’m not sure I’ll even bother applying for promotion because the time spent filling the forms would be completely wasted, and heaven knows I spend enough time filling in pointless forms already.

    I’m also not totally convinced about the low levels of pay for previous generations. These things are relative, after all. How come SO many academics I know in their 50s are living in splendid red brick houses in Sandymount, Ranelagh and so forth, when my two-income household can only afford a 2-bedroom apartment, and that by being mortgaged to the hilt?

    I’m sorry this is such a bad-tempered post, but these are bad-tempered times.

    • anonymous Says:

      Jilly, you have my sympathy. However, I think that the public perceive academics as people who are above getting their hands dirty. I am not suggesting that this is the case for the vast majority. Nevertheless, in my experience as a research student in DCU, I have come across some interesting stories. For example, once one research student was concerned about the health and safety implications of using a certain piece of equipment. The student approached the project supervisor about the problem, and when the student asked the supervisor to help inspect the equipment (as he is supposedly an expert in the area), the supervisor replied “I’m not going to the laboratory, I solve problems from my desk”. It is hard to fathom why any taxpayer would look up to academics who think so much of themselves, and are yet so anti-progressive.

      • Jilly Says:

        Well, I entirely agree that there are irritating, self-important bad colleagues in academia, but I’ve never had the impression that there are any more of them in our profession than in others: indeed, I strongly suspect there may be less, for a variety of reasons.

  4. seamus Says:

    “The academic profession seems to be held in low esteem by the public at large”

    I think this is an issue you’ve referred to before. Can I ask what gives you this impression?

    • Jilly Says:

      Have you read the Independent recently?!

      • seamus Says:


        presumably there’s an article there that holds academics in low esteem?

        I’d question whether it would be an accurate reflection of the views of public, in any case.

  5. Vincent Says:

    Here is one for your eleven o’clock. How much wine is needed, mixed in water to make that water safe.

  6. Charmed Says:

    Yikes, this post seems to provoked a nerve in some quarters. I like the description of the ‘olden days’ and it suggests that some good (the intellectual elevenses – oh Heaven!) things as well as bad have gone by the wayside. I agree with Jilly in that yes, large class sizes (increased numbers in a class limit both teaching and learning opportunities, not to mention the increase in assessment marking) and increased bureaucracy (much of it in the name of quality control) mean there is little or no time for the any intellectual discussion for its own sake. As for the public perception of long summer holidays….. that’s called research time, and it’s not research on a beach in Spain either.

  7. Jilly Says:

    In reply to Seamus, the Independent now publishes several articles a day inveighing against the public sector (including academia on a regular basis), typically implying that we do little work and have a fine life while others struggle.

    I fully sympathise with the struggles of those outside of the public sector. But I am absolutely SICK of hearing that those of us inside it are leading lives of underworked luxury. In the meantime, many of us are struggling just to provide basic services, and taking huge personal responsibility to cope with situations that are not of our making. This is especially true in sectors which were underfunded throughout the boom years and which are now absolutely decimated.

    I wish I did agree with you that the Independent is not representative of public opinion. It’s certainly not fully representative. However, it gets to dictate a considerable amount of public opinion, often through the endless repetition of inaccuracies.

  8. Emily MFG Says:

    All of the points in the post are valuable, but it’s also true academia is a much more competitive place than it probably was 20+ years ago– did candidates then apply for 50+ jobs in a single year, as many do today, with little hope of interview (much less a permanent position)? The fact that academic jobs remain much-sought after by very qualified people (who are often very reluctant to change tracks and will stay on the job market for years on end) means that universities have gotten away with offering less and less to their contract staff…it’s an awful situation but not easily fixable.

    While I wouldn’t describe academic life as luxurious, I also don’t think it’s universally true that _all_ academics are pulling 12-hour days– there is probably a kernel of truth to the accusation some academics are underworked, but of course it’s not true of everyone. It doesn’t help either that much intellectual work doesn’t ‘look’ like work to many people… I’ve always thought one of the guarantors of good quality work is enough free time & space to be able to simply _think_– probably one of our most sought-after commodities, but it’s not one that can be easily quantified or tied to specific ‘outcomes’.

    Certainly the training period involved in any academic career (and the likely possibility of gruelling years on postdocs & the job market) would correct many people’s assumptions about academia, if they knew the reality of the long haul!

    • Emily, you said: “It doesn’t help either that much intellectual work doesn’t ‘look’ like work to many people”. I think that’s an important issue – the nature of academic ‘work’ is not easily understood by people outside the academy. All too often people think that a lecturer’s student contact hours are the only ones that qualify. We have not been good at explaining this!

  9. Ros Says:

    I completely agree with you Jilly! As a mature research student in DCU I am really fed up with the attitude of a LOT of people towards those who work in and study at third level. I wish they could meet my supervisors and their colleagues and see how they struggle to cope with the bureaucratic nonsense that increasingly punctuates their work days. Maybe I’m just institutionalized at this stage, but my idea of a feckless waster is not someone who feels they are not doing their job if they don’t reply to an e-mail straight away or go out of their way to make you feel that your research is potentially the best thing since sliced bread. All I can say is to hell with the begrudgers and full steam ahead!

  10. Ronan Says:

    unfortunately I happen to agree and disagree with the post. As a younger academic, I don’t live in the luxurious houses that my older colleagues managed to secure… so in many ways the distance our money goes has not gone up…

    however then again, I think that as a class, we deserve our reputation and are overpaid. I don’t know about DCU, but i’ve seen other universities that effectively empty out in Summer (and let’s not talk about ITs). There are many academics in the system who do not do anything other than recreational research. Those are overpaid. As a member of the younger generation, I’d say that life is very different. We’re forced on to the research path to secure our careers, we’re forced into delivering innovation in our teaching, and doing this while going on those school visits (which most of our older colleagues don’t go on). So in the end, I tend to believe that we deserve most of our bad reputation..

    ps.. what a surprise I had when i took this job.. thinking that it would be like what my lecturers used to have.

  11. Joseph Says:

    My reflections agree with comments above by “Wendymr,” “Emily MFG,” and frequent-poster “Jilly”.

    As a tenured American academic here in Ireland who has worked in both the U.S.A. and in Holland, I find the Irish reaction, especially within HR departments, to the Fixed Term Workers Act to be deplorable. In my personal experience the impact of this Act has been that it has increased, not decreased the number of researchers on permanent contracts in Holland.

    As to the nature of this and the next generation of academics, I have strong feelings. Yes, I believe academia is more competitive than ever. You have to be very bright, work hard, be well-connected, and excel to hope to get a tenured post anywhere. But to go through all of that and arrive in a new country to find that our “high-paying” (read: comparable to the U.S.A.) positions wouldn’t even buy us a decent apartment in this town-we-call-a-capital-city was and is infuriating.

    This is part of the reason that so many of us are now moving on. Now that the universities and the government have decided to bury this and the next generation of students and academics under a pile of paperwork and eternal mediocrity, those of us not tied to our Mother’s apron strings are saying “adios, and good luck with that.”

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