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Blog post

Who wants to be an academic?

Dominic Wyse, BERA President, UCL Institute of Education

The good…

Academic staff are driven by the thrill of creating new knowledge. New knowledge also stimulates the passion that academics bring to teaching their students. When these two things happen together the job satisfaction is unrivalled.

Interest in a new research idea requires creativity. This idea then needs the right funder. Doing the research project, which is nearly always a collaborative team effort, is followed by the joy of sharing the outcomes – for example, the excitement of getting a peer-reviewed paper or book published. Sometimes there is international interest in the research which takes you to new countries. And perhaps the media call can catapult the academic to prime time TV.

The creativity of teaching is bound up with the excitement of helping students to learn: as individuals, in small groups, large groups, even massive (MOOC) groups. The particularly long apprenticeship of a doctorate can result in professional relationships, between academic supervisor and student, that last many years after the doctorate has been awarded.

For some academics, enterprise and engagement work also sparks their creativity including through commercial start-ups and other spin-offs. Traditionally, then, the job of an academic has been a very varied one. It is a profession that allows the flexibility and personal agency to determine at least some of the work based on interests, although research evidence on the structures and processes of the work of academics in UK education departments is known to be scarce (Boyle et al., 2021).

…the bad…

The variety of the work of an academic includes refereeing papers and book proposals; being an editor of a journal; organising seminars and conferences; giving talks at conferences; helping research organisations like BERA do their work; and talking to journalists about news articles they are writing, and about programmes on broadcast media that they are pitching. Too often this work has to be done on top of research, teaching and administration: effectively overtime done for free (see for example Koens et al., 2018). The nature of academic contracts enables this situation, which is a risk to work–life balance (Matthews, 2016). I doubt that much ‘free’ work is done in the private sector.

The qualifications required to become a lecturer in a university require full-time study of three years on an undergraduate degree, one year master’s degree, three-to-four years’ doctoral study then X years of postdoctoral research or the equivalent in a profession such as school teaching. As a result, academics are extremely well qualified, and work in what is known in employment analyses as ‘a knowledge intensive service’. On average, public sector workers in knowledge intensive services, including university academics, are paid much less than their counterparts in the private sector. To be precise, they are paid 17 per cent less than other higher-skilled private sector employees (ONS, 2020)

And these figures can’t account for one-off bonuses for individual employees in the private sector, or the range of ‘informal’ incentives such as being part of the lavish entertaining of clients or company meetings, or the quick promotions and bonuses that come as a result of simply meeting numerical targets. In universities, most promotions require not only the meeting of performance targets but also a lengthy written case across multiple documents that are peer-reviewed by multiple committees in the annual applications process – all to gain the extra £2,000 per annum that may be on offer. In general, given that there is a clear link between pay and productivity (Britton & Propper, 2016), it is reasonable to assume that incentives are an important consideration for any job, including for academic staff. My experience suggests that incentives of most kinds for academic staff have been reduced or are now non-existent. For example, the £500 contribution to the cost of attending an academic conference (which is part of the requirements of the job) for which one can apply to one’s institution annually has, I suspect, not increased much over the years.

…and the ugly

The prized flexibility in the job of an academic has seen many changes, including the introduction of performance management structures initiated by the UK government such as:

  • the Research Excellence Framework (REF)
  • the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)
  • the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF).

Teacher educators in universities face the ‘double whammy’ of performance management through the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) inspections, in addition to repeated government attempts to control their academic freedom to construct relevant curricula (BERA, 2021).

UK academics have risen to the challenges of productivity and quality – the REF, for example – by competing and winning on the global stage. However, whereas in the private sector financial bonuses may quickly follow increased productivity, this is not the case for university academics. Even the astonishing work done during the global pandemic remains totally unrewarded.

Apart from the satisfaction of the job, the reason for any job is to earn a good living. Academic pay has lost its value by a minimum of 10.5 per cent since 2009 (a higher estimate puts this figure at 16.4 per cent), and the problems of poor wages are particularly acute for colleagues who are in the early stages of their career (UCU, 2021). To be clear, that is effectively a pay cut year-on-year for 12 years. The post-doc academic will generally be on fixed-term contracts before they even get a chance to apply for a first lectureship, but will face many of the same expectations of full-time academic staff. And pensions for academic staff, which have always been seen by people outside academia as a major incentive of the job, are facing very serious problems.

In view of the changing nature of conditions for academic staff it is no surprise to me that for the second time (pre-pandemic and now) the University and College Union has received a mandate from academics (and other higher education professionals) for industrial action. It is absolutely vital that those responsible take decisive action to reverse the years of decline in working conditions for academics. This needs to be supported loudly and clearly by government for all the reasons outlined in this blog. Equity and equality; pay; incentives; conditions of service; and flexibility all need to be addressed, not least to ensure that the creativity that powers our society is safeguarded.


References

Boyle, C., Stentiford, L., Koutsouris, G., Jindal-Snape, D., Benham-Clarke, S., & Rivera, J. S. (2021). Education: The State of the Discipline: A systematic scoping review of the literature on the structures & processes that influence research activities in the UK. British Educational Research Association. https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/ education-the-state-of-the-discipline-systematic-scoping-review

British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2021, August 19). BERA response to the public consultation on the ITT market review (ITTMRR). https://www.bera.ac.uk/news/bera-response-to-the-public-consultation-on-the-itt-market-review-ittmrr

Britton, J., & Propper, C. (2016). Teacher pay and school productivity: Exploiting wage regulation. Journal of Public Economics, 133, 75–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2015.12.004

Koens, L., R. Hofman & J. de Jonge (2018). What motivates researchers? Research excellence is still a priority. Rathenau Instituut. https://www.rathenau.nl/en/vitale-kennisecosystemen/what-motivates-researchers

Matthews, D. (2016, January 14). How many hours a week should academics work? Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/how-many-hours-week-should-academics-work

Office for National Statistics [ONS] (2020, September 23). Public and private sector earnings: 2019. https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/articles/publicandprivatesectorearnings/2019#data-sources-and-quality

University and College Union [UCU] (2021). HE negotiations 2020-21. https://www.ucu.org.uk/he2020