Why I’m leaving UK academia

(and no, it’s not just Brexit)

Last year I started playing competitive squash in the East of Scotland League. After the matches, meals and drinks are provided by the hosting club in a social setting. Squash is a sport which attracts people of all ages from all walks of life. I have spoken to actuaries, chefs, farmers, delivery personnel, school teachers, people working in the financial sector, etc., etc. With very few exceptions, when I asked people whether they enjoy their job, they responded with a resounding “Yes, I love it!”. I’m not used to this. That’s because I’m an academic and, overwhelmingly, when I ask other UK academics whether they are happy with their work, they look like they want to strangle me on the spot. Overwrought and unhappy is the least of it.

“Bunch of whiners”, you might say, but in 2013, The Guardian reported that the “real wages of academics have fallen by 13% since 2008, one of the largest sustained wage cuts any profession has suffered since the Second World War.” The University and College Union regularly reports that university teachers and other educators are doing the most unpaid overtime. Personally, once my university decided to start monitoring my movements, thus making it impossible for me to do large components of my job (I work in a music department where it’s loud of course: there’s no way I can do serious creative work in my office), I decided to audit my own working patterns. I put in, on average and over all my academic activities, 55 hours per week.

For years I didn’t even think of taking more than a third to half of my annual leave. Even then, when I went on holiday I would usually spend the mornings composing or writing, answering student emails even (i.e., doing my academic job) before heading off to do holiday activities in the afternoon. Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point. And this in a sector which at no time could fairly be deemed to have been failing. Add to this the underfunding of UK universities and the attendant massive increase in student fees (and student numbers of course) and you get a pressure cooker situation in which very few people are happy. In my view, only once academics start working like the drones they’re actively being encouraged or even forced to become will it be apparent just what we have lost.

Then there’s the administration. Leaving aside the widely pilloried and Sisyphean administrative exercises known as the Research Excellence Framework and now the Teaching Excellence Framework, to put it simply we have in recent times witnessed an administrative coup in UK academia. In an article focussing on Oxford University but painting a picture that will be familiar to most academics, The Spectator wrote that the “university’s central administrative staff is now almost three times what it was 15 years ago. There was no similar increase in full-time academic staff, the people who teach students or do research…”. I won’t speculate here on the many reasons why this might be, rather I’ll merely point out that an increase in administrators—lovely and well-meaning as most of them are as individuals—naturally does not do what you might naively expect, i.e., take care of the administration so that academics can focus on academic work. No, instead it breeds ever more complex administrative mazes that are not just difficult to navigate but are de facto becoming the main part of the job. Kafkaesque would not be pushing it too far by any means.

Of course, this is all woefully negative and unbalanced. But this post is about why I’m leaving, not why I stayed for fifteen years: the often fantastic students; the generous and fascinating colleagues; the conditions which sometimes allowed me to flourish; the pay which allowed me to buy an ex-council flat despite having a Doctorate from Stanford (sorry…slipped…). I’m leaving, for example, because my summer research periods are gone; the pension I signed up for fifteen years ago has been slashed; grant applications have transformed from short forms processed within a matter of weeks to a full time job for a month or more (for which you can apply to get a grant: yes, a grant to write a grant); funding processes which require in-house peer review before a nine-month full review by the research council, with reviewers in both cases being other academics working for free; control of tiny budgets essential to our day-to-day activities has been passed into the hands of administrators with little or no understanding and, more to the point, often little respect or sympathy for our fields or professions; and standards have, inevitably, succumbed to the pressure to recruit high-fee paying students. Who knows what will happen when, as proposed at my university, Masters’ applications are taken out of the hands of academics and processed by administrators instead, as happened with undergraduate applications some time ago. UK academia has, quite frankly, gone to hell in a handcart. I’m sure some will revile me for leaving a sinking ship rather than passing the bucket but I’m not about to stick around to begin working for Murdoch Universities PLC before being left to die of a broken heart at Virgin Healthcare. I’m off to the green and pleasant land that is the Ruhrgebiet: from October this year I’ll be the new Professor of Electronic Composition at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Germany. I won’t gloat about conditions there. Let’s just say I’ll be expected to do my job: to facilitate artistic development at the highest level possible.

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  1. Well good luck to you in your future post. Would like to praise your insights here, but, with the best will in the world, unfortunately you are now stating the blindingly obvious. Obvious, that is, to everyone except our politicians. No, perhaps I am wrong there, maybe this is exactly the outcome they want and will help them with their non-executive directorships when they come to retire.

    • Obvious or not, Jack, some things need stating and restating. And people need to see that the current UK HE environment is leading to resignations.

      • It’s been heartbreaking here in Canada too. Everything now requires dean’s signatures (ie. ordering catering for an event); it takes at least 3 or 4 hours to input every detail of an expense account; no replacement hiring gor the 10 or so retirements in my department (english) of the past few years. Constant skirmishes over the language of academic freedom in official
        statements (no. we. are. not. protecting. a. brand).
        On and on and on.

        I went through a period of profound grief. Better now. Though shrink fees not covered ….

        • Rick C

          Hey, all those new administrators have to justify their salaries somehow, right?

      • Adam Dorsey

        I fear the resignations are what the enemy of Western Civilization wants. Fight.

    • oob mawby

      Excellently put…and you forgot to mention that at the same time Vice Chancellors have given themselves obscene pay rises…

  2. Jen Hazel

    It’s pretty evident that anything resembling creative arts suffers the most under these oppressively quantifying framework structures. I’ve been looking to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD in the field and I’m starting to think that there really is no point doing so.

    • The last thing I would want my post to do is put people off studying. There are all kinds of reasons to study, with job prospects being just one of them. These have always been pretty low in the creative arts anyway. Still, I’d strongly encourage you to find a mentor and study with them to your heart’s content, but at the same time try to develop multiple income streams to support your art. Who knows, the HE sector might turn around and become a more healthy environment again, or you might find yourself in another part of the world where your PhD comes in handy. Best of luck to you in any case.

      • chunga's revenge

        I’d say you badly understate the hell that is modern academia. Worse, you do few good service to recommend that any but the most capable and most dedicated commit to doctoral studies. Why? Because a great many universities now treat doctoral candidates as cash cows – more money from the government, easier to justify more money for administration, ample supplies of cheap labor for teaching. I’m not aware of any universities that plan to hire fewer part-time adjuncts and increase the number of tenure-track positions, but I’d be happy to be corrected on that point. The good news, of course, is that nepotism and patronage play no part whatsoever in the hiring process, so candidates can be certain that identity politics and other practices play no part in career advancement. Ahem. I do the best quality research I can by making research my priority. Paying for a good doctoral program at a even a very good school is hard to justify when there’s very little chance of full-time employment within one’s field. I get plenty of teaching work with a good MA and publication record.

    • Susan Forward

      Have you looked at Finland? Interdisciplinary is welcomed there.
      Just saying.

    • Adam Dorsey

      I would have been a professor of English, but my views are anathema to the current administrators. So I work as a staff member biding my time. This structure is not stable. They take from the bottom of the pyramid and add to the top every year. It is bad at staff level.

  3. Alas, Germany is going down the same road …

    • Ach, Spielverderber 😉 Not nearly to the same extent, or at the same pace, as far as I can tell. And thankfully Germany has a habit of turning things around, like tuition fees. The Kunst-Unis are still doing the right thing as far as I can tell.

  4. I hope you will not find yourself in Germany feeling as disappointed and frustrated as you do with your life experiences to date. These seem to me to have been very fortunate. The opportunities you have had to pursue a career at the cutting edge of musical composition and technology show that society still values enterprise of all kinds – at least enough to have allowed you to progress a long way along the road to whatever might be your ultimate goal in life. Do you have one?
    I read music at Durham in the 1950s, long before your kind of composing surfaced as the respectable artistic endeavour it is now. As it happens, I have not pursued a professional career in music-making (though I could well have done). I have worked as a priest for over 50 years, mostly in parochial situations where many. many people have had to be content with the minimum of satisfaction.
    I share your feelings and sentiments about the state of education today. Do you consider it impossible to effect sensible changes from with the systems in place in the United Kingdom?

    • Not sure this is the forum for discussing my ultimate goal in life but I am aware, and thankful every day, of the good fortune I have had and continue to have. I’m not frustrated with my “life experiences to date”; I’m frustrated with my current job. However, that I am still relatively fortunate does not mean I should not point out a terrible deterioration in the system. To shrug and point to people less fortunate aids those who would benefit from a race to the bottom.

      I’m afraid after struggling for years, in discussions with colleagues, to try and effect change within UK HE I do now consider it too far gone to be able to turn around any time soon. I would love to be proved wrong however.

  5. Sandy Miller

    when did we have student fees ??

      • Norval Smith

        I think the periods that different Länder charged for tuition varied.

        • No doubt. But they’ve all removed fees now, right? That was my point.

          • Yup there are gone.
            Partially thanks to vocal protests all over Germany.
            Similar protests didn’t have the same effect in the UK unfortunately. Wonder why this is so difficult to change political courses in the UK with political action campaigns.

          • Stefan Dresselhaus

            Depends on your Bundesland. With the new Landesregierung in NRW we will soon have fees again.
            Baden-Würtemberg has just passed legislation which will go into effect starting October.

            But the fees are “only” for non-EU-people and there are many, many exceptions (like being poor, being eu-citizen, etc.). And the KfW (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau) gives out cheap loans if you are still not covered.
            Last number i heard was 1500€/term .. so 3000/year. This is not comparable with those 5-digit-numbers in other places.

  6. Greer Nicholson

    I am hearing this from so many of my friends who are academics, in the UK. I find it sad that the brilliant people are choosing to leave while the useless administration bureaucrats are flourishing. Good luck to you.

  7. Donald Persons

    Best wishes. I’m an American academic in Thailand (Disabilities Studies). Afraid the new AUNQA is going to make this the rule throughout Southeast Asia and the comment about a burgeoning support staff is quite true here. Across from me is a very fine Music College for Mahidol U. Unfortunately, our political climate is rather fearful and the Deans are only being appointed out of loyalty to king, and militant nationalist Buddhism, rather than qualities that would enhance our academic endeavors. The ants mostly live in fear of losing their jobs, spend their time justifying their importance to the university and undercutting colleagues who pose a threat to their imagined world.

  8. Sheena

    And I wouldn’t bank on virgin health care for anything as they failed and are suing the commissioning services for not getting the contract. Broken hearts all round.

  9. Jane Doe

    Things are the same in Engineering schools, so don’t feel special 🙂 In my school, for example, (Russell group Uni in London) the debate is whether students are “customers” or “clients”.

    Also, academics lack the support of the general public in this. See for instance the one and only comment left in the article you mention about Edi U monitoring the location of staff: “Shocking that an employer wants to know where its employees are…welcome to the real world.”. It’s the same when teachers are trying to protest something, the general attitude of people is “screw them, they have 3 months of holiday!”.

    In terms of people wanting to pursue PhDs and become academics, we struggle to find good candidates. We rely mostly (and thankfully) on candidates from Asia who still think that being an academic is a notable profession.

    • Quite. I do sense more respect for academics in German-speaking countries. I wasn’t making a case at all for my situation being due to being in the arts. I’m well aware that the problem exists across disciplines.

      • Zimriel

        I’ve heard the same, that the Germans treat their academics better without sacrificing quality. Unfortunately mein Deutsch nicht gut ist. Or was that ist nicht gut…

    • Zimriel

      “Also, academics lack the support of the general public in this.”

      As they deserve, after sneering down at the general public for generations. Especially the working (actual working) class.

      • “sneering down at the general public for generations”? Really? I’m not aware of this. Can you point to any evidence for this assertion? I’m working class myself and wasn’t sneered at as a student or as an academic.

  10. Bronwyn

    Good luck in Deutschland, the funding situation and overall quality of the students in my field, (science) is far better. Money appears out of no where and facilities are abundant and well maintained. However, trying to navigate the archaic purchasing systems and the depth of bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to spend said money or use said facilities. Find someone with an official stamp and never let them go!

  11. Best wishes for your future. I’m based in the Netherlands (bleak prospects in the Social Sciences) with a firm offer for a PhD in Scotland (…need to secure funding)… I didn’t know things were this bad…

  12. I see your point, but then who is getting the student teaching fees? I see it from the sharp end with summer term at uni finishing effectively in mid may. It is good teaching at my son’s uni when they are there, but second year (this year) summer term was a week of exams and no more lectures or coursework. As a parent seeing my child get into debt and not getting lectures or even tutor time in the summer term I feel despair at the system and I’d like to make the point that it is not working for the students either. Having good research at the university is good but not good enough to teach towards a degree worth its salt without lecturers, or to inspire a new generation of professors. Is it better for students too in Germany?

    • I think it’s fair to say there’s more student-staff engagement in the German Arts Unis (to which I’ll be moving) than there is in a standard UK dept. Teaching time, especially one-on-one, is being reduced, in my experience, in the UK.

  13. Ian St

    I only taught in a state secondary but experienced a lot of this. The culture of targets, constant monitoring and assessment drains much of the creativity out of education.
    We are told that monitoring is necessary to get value for money when money is tight-when is it anything else?-and prevent ‘waste’.
    In the past 30 years education has been infected by this concept of “efficiency ” based on commercial models. No dissent is allowed and those who do are denounced as ‘dinosaurs’.
    It comes from the supply side model of economics and politics and everything is a commodity which can be traded. What is valuable can’t always be reduced to a series of figures. It has seriously undermined the morality of society where employees can be treated with respect but it is, in the long run, the most inefficient of systems.

  14. best of luck to you! but couldn’t you have picked a nicer part of the german-speaking world? ruhrgebiet? really?

    as a german academic working in britain (who once got frustrated with things back home!), I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the new job. I look forward to reading your 12-months-evaluation post!

    but personally, I’m beginning to think the perfect university has still to be invented….

    • Well, generally I choose the institution I want to work in before the town it’s in. That was even true of Stanford 🙂

  15. David McAlpine

    Yep, agreed. Left for Oz for similar reasons (from a highly successful position at a UK ‘elite’) and i know a lot of people doing the same. Just another example of the UK not understanding how brilliant it’s academic sector is (mostly due to dullards who read the DM, and the DM mentality itself). The UK has had enough of experts, according to Oxford educated Gove, Well, it can suffer the consequences of REF/TEF/managerialism and then recognise what it lost only when it comes to its senses.

  16. Ray Hudson

    I think there’s a danger of creating an illusion as to some past golden age of life in acadaemia. A longer term perspective may be helpful here. I started lecturing at Durham University Geography Department in 1972. I was told (no negotiation) by the then Head of Department what my annual teaching load would be: 120+ hours of lectures, 12 or so practical classes (each 3 hours twice a week, with 100+ books to be marked by the next week), 3 tutorial groups (meeting fortnightly, with essays to be marked by the next meeting), a one week residential fieldcourse in the ‘Easter vacation’. The lecture courses generated a heavy exam marking load, at the end of the first and third terms. As well as departmental administrative duties, I was expected to carry out research, publish and win research grants – I got my first SSRC (the predecessor of ESRC) grant in 1973. So, yes, there have been changes, and in recent years not for the better (though by no means confined to academia) but over the longer term not entirely for the worse.

    • That sounds like a heavy load indeed, but perhaps you could console yourself that most of your effort seems to have been going into teaching rather than questionable administrative quagmires.

  17. The same reasons I left three years for a professorship in France. In those three years I’ve had to get used to a new country, a new academic system, and devise and deliver an almost wholly new set of courses, and I’ve still had time to write a book from scratch (plus three articles on different subjects and conference papers). Could not have done a fraction of that in the UK. Good luck with your new post!

  18. Stella

    I work in the NHS and like all public organisations it seems that the pursuit of targets and accountability, and in the case of the NHS in particular, the fear of litigation too, has bred an enormous army of administrators! The policy behind this is being implemented by the government but has sadly been deemed a ‘good’ idea because of forces originating from the public, propelled forward by the media! “Granny on trolley for 6 hours” – lets have a 4 hour target, “Grandad didn’t get a cup of tea for 10 hours” – let’s bring in more documentation.
    Nobody, it seems, in our public bodies can be trusted anymore to provide good service unless they are constantly monitored and are regimented into using set guidelines and everything is documented.
    By all means share best practice ideas but surely if top managers are held to account then hopefully good management practices will filter through organisations.
    Suffocating the minnions running full tilt on the ground floor with more paperwork for the administrators to process ( as you rightly say this also generates more admin jobs, as those in the role either seek to justify their existence with more glorious ideas, or are themselves monitored) is killing morale depressingly effectively.

    The public need to be made aware of how their money is spent on admin in public services, and appreciate what drives that policy!

    Please can the government provide these figures and suggest how the spending can be reduced so that more money can be spent on educators, clinicians, care staff……
    All the best in Germany, I would much rather be free to live and work in Europe as a citizen of the European Union than enjoy the dubious ‘benefits’ of free trade with America et al.

  19. I am loath to say it, but the situation is exactly the same in Australian universities, students are now entirely viewed as clients and, whilst this is bad in general, in some circumstances is is utterly deplorable. I am working in a School of Education where the concept of ‘the client is always right’ is such that it is no longer feasible or possible to actually fail an underperforming student [I recently had my School raise an entire subject cohort’s grade by 10% simply to boost the pass rate on a poorly completed assessment task], nor are we any longer able to provide feedback that is in any way critical because the students don’t appreciate it and complain vociferously, leading to censure of academics. I am also leaving as it is no longer morally or ethically sustainable for me to keep passing students who I wouldn’t want teaching anyone’s child, let alone my own, and I have too little tongue left to bite…

  20. Depp Jones

    Just to point out that – as far as I know – the monitoring was introduced in response to requirements introduced by the home office for tier 2 visa holders.

    Few know that these people have to report to work every day, and tell someone even if they decide to work from home for the day. Not doing so would breach UKVI rules, which, in turn, could mean deportation.

    • Yup, so as not to be “prejudiced” towards those visa holders, we are all subject to monitoring. Lovely isn’t it?

  21. Luckily, some of us UK academics do love our jobs though 🙂

  22. You describe how the number of ‘administrators’ has increased over the past years. As an academic I work closely with a team of administrators delivering student support and I must say I wish there were more ‘administrators’. TEF is turning my co-workers into ‘document writers and form fillers’ and leaves increasingly less time for supporting students & staff.
    The problem are not the grade 4 & grade 5 administrators who are working their butts of to maintain some kind of student-facing role while being buried under a deluge of managerial excell sheets needing more ill-defined data.
    The problem is the grade 9-and-beyond middle management who want to lay their management kuckoo’s egg into our academic institutions before they hop over to the next 4 year stint somewhere else. They leave behind a legacy of badly thought-through regulations, unresourced admissions policies, badly executed IT projects and a further plethora of costly mistakes.

    • I agree with your assessment of where the problem lies, but asking for more administrators rather than a dismantling of the appalling and unnecessary bureaucratic structures is a step in the wrong direction.

  23. P Savage

    I’ve just become a lecturer at another Scottish University, and already starting to feel dread. There’s so much admin that we have to deal with on top of teaching and research. I recently spent two weeks doing nothing but research, and it felt wonderful, but I actually felt guilty afterwards. Is this what I spent my life working towards?

  24. Christopher Chantrill

    Yes, well. Academics work for the government, and as I recall the bureaucrats weren’t too happy even back in the days of Dickens, the Circumlocution Office, and “how not to do it.”

  25. I’m a former academic; now retired. When I began the journey I felt it was a calling. The administration managed to turn it into a job. Little more & sometimes much less.
    BTW retirement is not bad as only my wife asks for an account of my activities and significant accomplishments. With few works in progress forms.

  26. Fred Z

    Why is it again that the taxpayer should fund a musician who cannot sell his awful music? I missed that part of your essay.

    By which I mean I have zero sympathy and wish you to live under a bridge eating dog food.

    • And I wish you nothing more than happiness and the kind of prosperity which leads to enough time to reflect and realise how psychically detrimental it is, most of all to you, to spread such ignorant muck as you do here.

      (And the article wasn’t about my awful music, which is why you didn’t read about it here. Make sense?)

  27. Gregory Koster

    Dear Mr. Edwards: 1 . You write:
    “Add to this the underfunding of UK universities and the attendant massive increase in student fees (and student numbers of course) and you get a pressure cooker situation in which very few people are happy. ”

    2. You also write:
    ” In an article focussing on Oxford University but painting a picture that will be familiar to most academics, The Spectator wrote that the “university’s central administrative staff is now almost three times what it was 15 years ago. There was no similar increase in full-time academic staff, the people who teach students or do research…”.”

    I think it reasonable to infer that you believe more money for universities would help some of the difficulties you’ve been facing. Given that:

    3. Tell us if you think that more money would go to a) faculty or b) administration. If b), does this surprise you?

    4. I don’t know much about your political beliefs beyond a) you are an academic, and hence it is overwhelmingly likely you lean far enough left so your door is shaped like a horseshoe and b) “and no it isn’t only about Brexit.” The disdain for Brexiteers, who voted to leave an unaccountable government that made its hearty contempt for them all-too evident is quite evident in your writing. But don’t you see that you are doing much the same as the Brexiteers,with the important difference that your academic bureaucracy has defeated you, and you are choosing to retire, instead of fighting for yourself as the Brexiteers did.

    5. If you think the academic climate is better in Germany, you should go. But is the climate actually better? I have my doubts. Perhaps when you’ve had to face the flood of “refugees” that Chancellor Merkel has pumped into Germany you may change your thinking. Or more likely not: your job is plush enough to insulate yourself from the refugees, particularly since you are not a woman i.e. a convenient target. In that case, the secondary effect of rising nationalism may affect you when the “Germany First” crowd asks why Germany needs foreigners taking German jobs, and makes you unwelcome. Then where to go?

    6. You may think I am incompletely sympathetic to your plight. Cheer up, I have the perfect advice for you. From H. L. Mencken’s original CHRESTOMATHY:

    “Is it hot in the rolling-mill? Are the hours long? Is $15 a day not enough? Then escape is very easy. Simply throw up your job, spit on your hands, and write another ‘Rosenkavalier.'”

    “Rosenkavalier II” awaits your Superior Talent in the warm bath of Germany, away from the hateful goose stepping that is the national characteristic of the UK. I”ll be watching Naxos’s new releases for the results of your German interlude.

    PS: If this comment seems excessively sarcastic, watch the episode of YES MINISTER titled “The Bishop’s Gambit.” Then read your post again and tell us if you see any similarities . I don’t think you will, but the episode is pretty funny, even though its portrait of English Higher Education couldn’t possibly have any truth to it.

    • “The disdain for Brexiteers, … is quite evident in your writing”. Really? Despite the fact that Brexit appears exactly once in my post, in the subtitle, and isn’t otherwise discussed?

  28. Jane Doe makes a point: “academics lack the support of the general public in this”. As a former grad and postgrad, and current member of the general public, with friends who have left academia for the same reason, I quite understand why.

    She quotes: “Shocking that an employer wants to know where its employees are…welcome to the real world.” but that can be countered of course – in some consulting firms, the commercial theory is “Knowing where your staff are at all times obstructs them earning for you.” Out of many arguments that are not so easy to counter, I’ll select one. Imagine the comment:

    “Left-leaning UK academia astounded to find itself groaning under ballooning socialist-style bureaucracy – like the NHS and much else in UK life.”

    While the public sees academics preaching that more and more regulation is great for the public, no-one will feel respect, let alone sympathy, when academics complain that the experience of more and more regulation is proving horrible for them personally.

    • “academics preaching that more and more regulation is great for the public”? Can you give me a link to an example?

  29. Then there’s the administration. Leaving aside the widely pilloried and Sisyphean administrative exercises …to put it simply we have in recent times witnessed an administrative coup in UK

    and That’s why we the 52% voted to leave the EU.

    • It is nothing less than delusional to think that leaving the EU will result in less administration in any public institution. The administrative overload I write of was instituted in and is mainly peculiar to the UK (with a few exceptions, like Australia).

  30. Much luck to you! I left my tenured position (U.S.) decades ago, and since then have published thirteen novels and books of poetry and raised three children. Though I missed colleagues and students for quite a while, I never regretted my decision.

  31. Things are much the same in my small unprestigious state college here in the US where I was happy as a lark teaching for the first 20 years. The last five years or so have seen an abrupt turn downward. I don’t know what I will do, but I can’t in good conscience remain much longer associated with what we have become.

  32. Stefan Dresselhaus

    In Bielefeld (where the administration tries to close the faculty of arts/music for years – without success, yet) i have a little insight into how we sell ourselves to future professors.

    We cannot compete with switzerland or other high-paying universities – but we try to get them with other things. A very green city, great “Familienfreundlichkeit” (from being single-parent with kids, disabled kids, etc.), low cost (rent/house-prices) and (at least in my faculty (of technology)) a great atmosphere between collegues.

    So money is not everything if you have a good university supporting you and your ambitions – and only with ambition you get great teaching and great research, which you need to survive as university in todays climate of citation-counting and “impact factor”..

    (PS: For students we have the “Bielefelder Modell”: You can take any exam as often an you want – best grade counts. Therefore the exams are (a bit) harder, but it takes much psychological stress off students yielding a better education and atmosphere. I wish more universities would offer that.)

  33. Rich Rostrom

    “once academics start working like the drones…”

    Meaning stop working entirely? In a beehive or anthill, drones are males whose only function is to mate with the queen. They are exemplars of idleness. Bertie Wooster and his chums foregathered at the Drones Club.

    (I presume the author is not referring to unpiloted aircraft or fixed-note reeds of bagpipes.)

    (I don’t often pick this kind of nit, but when a writer uses a word as if it meant the exact opposite of its definition, that is too much.)

    • According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the several meanings of the word drone is synonymous with drudge: “to do hard, menial, or monotonous work”. It is clearly that meaning which I had in mind. Take a look. And while you’re there, look up “pointless”, “erroneous”, and “pedant”.

  34. Professor Kirstein Rummery, FAcSS

    Although I hear you, and in fact had to take a long period of sick leave after the REF due to work stress induced PTSD, I still love my job and wouldn’t dream of leaving. Why? Because we have agency and power. I bring in millions of pounds of research funding and write world leading articles and attract lots of PhD students because that is my JOB, and I am bloody good at it, and that is all these bureaucratic systems you complain about are measuring. If you do this you can tell the Dean, politely, to fuck off and just carry on doing what you love. Germany will be just as annoying to you unless you realise this, I am afraid. Honestly. Would you like to return to a system where promotion was reliant on the old boy’s network, professors disappeared for months on end screwing their prettiest PhD students and lower paid exploited research staff covered for them? I wouldn’t. I am very happy that the work of my colleagues is made accountable and transparent. We are public servants, not privileged elite patricians.

    • So you defend a purely administrative process which you say caused “stress induced PTSD”? Honestly?

      I’m happy to hear how good you are at your job, about your “world leading articles”, and about all the millions you bring in but not particularly impressed by the glib and presumptuous “Germany will be just as annoying to you unless you realise this, I am afraid”. How could you possibly know that, knowing neither me nor my future position?

      Our administrative systems do not make us accountable or transparent, they make us into anonymous, replaceable box-tickers. True accountability comes with the freedom to exercise judgment.

  35. John Doez

    Thanks for this very timely article.

    Most people I know wouldnt say they love their jobs. I should move to East Scotland and take up squash.

    UK higher ed is in a terrible state. I think the collapse is starting now so its a good time to get out regardless of working conditions.

    Ive known some humanities academics leave the uk for china, it will be interesting to see how that pans out.

    Please keep us updated. Good luck.

  36. Jane Lovell

    Same in schools. There is no longer the option to be creative or respond to the children in your care. Just download, perform, be monitored, evaluated, graded. I have just quit after thirty years. I gave it my all. I never want to set foot in a classroom again.

  37. Dear Michael,

    Having worked as an administrator in a UK Higher Education institution, I can certainly confirm that there is nothing administrative staff enjoy more than creating additional, pointless tasks for academics to complete. In fact, it’s one of my main hobbies.

    I particularly enjoy petitioning the Home Office to change their regulations, and in doing so, mischievously create even *more* work for academics. Oh, the laughs we have!

    It’s always a treat when one of our Tier 4 students gets into serious trouble with immigration compliance because academic staff prefer not to complete the (*incredibly* time-consuming) task of recording attendance during teaching activities.

    As you quite rightly affirm, I, as an administrator, am indeed lovely and well-meaning. I don’t, as I’m sure some misguided souls may, take this comment to be in any way condescending. Furthermore, you are absolutely correct in your assessment that administrators have no understanding and, more to the point, often little respect or sympathy for your fields or profession. The limited mental capacities of administration staff often impede such feats of empathy.

    You’re quite right to point out, that, as an academic, why on Earth should you be expected to report to anyone regarding your standards of work?! Professional accountability is for plebs!

    Thank you for writing this insightful piece, which truly does shine a light of one of the major issues affecting UK Higher Education institutions today.

    I wish you all the very best for your time in Germany.

    Our loss is their gain.

    • Thanks for the extremely heavy dose of sarcasm Jessica–very amusing.

      Professional accountability is for all. However it helps when an environment promotes it rather than formalises it to the point of individual staff feeling no responsibility whatsoever because all you have to do is blindly follow procedure and you’re “covered”.

      I could give many examples of admin. staff being nothing short of antagonistic towards my discipline. That would say nothing of their mental capacities however, merely their attitude towards the main protagonists (students and academics) of the sector they are working in.

      Time consuming? Ah yes, that one. Again, I’ve heard so often how one little form isn’t too much to ask. However, all together they impede the educational process very considerably.

      So far I’m much happier teaching in Germany than in the UK. I spend far more time with students and have, as yet, been to just one organisational meeting. What and how I teach is up to me. I don’t need to justify it via forms and standardising committees who with no expertise in my field will demand changes to bibliographies, etc. Woe betide me if I teach badly though, as students still have their mechanisms for complaint. But things are handled on a more individual basis, when and as the need arises, rather than with a one-size-fits-all attitude fuelled with a heavy dose of paranoia.

      • “I could give many examples of admin. staff being nothing short of antagonistic towards my discipline. ”

        Can you be certain it was solely the discipline they were antagonistic toward?

        • Yes: the department and discipline—not just individuals—were attacked for years. Or do you have other ideas?

  38. I am curious to hear how Germany has worked out for you. As a fellow academic, I am very sympathetic to your (now former) plight. I think part of the issue is that non-academics do not understand the nature of academic work. For one, academic work has been around long before anyone uttered the word capital. It has always had a different logic than almost any other profession. Most of what we do is carrying things — many of which don’t even exist as things in the eye of the public – forward. And, for the most part, our work requires a level of commitment, concentration and responsibility that is simply not achievable unless you are living in a state of leisure. Of course, this leisure is contingent on many factors. You could have it for nothing if you were a monk with an ironclad routine. You would need to make quite a bit of money if you had three kids and a big mortgage. You could have it if you have family wealth. That’s the other thing. Paying faculty less does not in some way level the privileges of the university. To the contrary, it makes the job attractive only to those who are already rich. I think this is part of the problem with Oxbridge today. Or, in the case of Germany, you can have it because you get a lot of public services, lower prices and a good work-life balance. Job security, too, is a big ticket in creating a sense of leisure: being unfettered by work as such and being free for serious play, which is what academic work is and has always been. I don’t think people quite realize how academics work best if their work does not feel like work. A teacher who does not (or for various reasons cannot) love teaching is a lousy teacher. And, that’s what the system is creating: turning academic work into genuine, alienating labor does not improve anything.
    At any rate, I would love to hear how things are turning out in Germany. Is it as good as you thought it would be?

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