(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.