An American PhD student, Janie Crosmer, recently completed a thesis on the causes of burnout and disillusionment among academics, and the results of her work were summarised in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. She conducted a survey of 411 faculty across the whole of the US. Much of what she found sounds very familiar to those who are aware of the pressures on academics over here.
This, for example, is what she says are the causes of burnout:
‘Lack of time, poorly prepared students, cumbersome bureaucratic rules, high self expectations, unclear institutional expectations, and low salary. Research shows that the sources of stress have remained unchanged for 25 years. We know about the problem, but we’re not doing anything about it.’
And here she summarises some of the responses she got in her survey:
‘People said students are increasingly entitled and lazy. “My classes are too big, my service load is too high, my teaching load is too high.” Almost every person mentioned something about administration or administrative issues. People really seemed to feel burdened by a lot of things.’
The problem with this state of affairs is that it produces academics who are world-weary and often cynical, and who feel less and less motivated. In many ways, in fact in surprising ways, I still find many who are dedicated and determined to do the best they can, but often the levels of energy I might have found a decade ago are gone, as is the spirit of optimism. Public criticism of the university system does not help.
There is a challenge ahead for the universities and their leaders. Universities must discover and work with a common sense of purpose and a determination to find ways of escaping from this sense of gloom. And it is unlikely, right now, that the answers to this will be provided by government.