December 06, 2003 | Peter

Academic Meltdown

I’ve just finished a long decade working as an academic. I’ve been very successful in my teaching and research, even being awarded a special university medal a few years back for my efforts. More importantly, personal and professional feedback from my students told me that my efforts have paid dividends for them.
But I’m completely fed up with life as a lecturer. The last decade or so has seen the destrction of the best things about the job and the promotion of the worst things. More and more the best people are demoralised and many are leaving the profession.
But I was still surprised the other day by a comment made by a young professor I know. He has had an exemplary career, is near the top of his profession, and would seem to have it all. But he said he is tired of all the pressure, the cutbacks and the extra work needed to keep things going. Despite the loss in income, he was considering doing something completely different. This man has been totally dedicated to academic life, and so if he is talking like this, something is very wrong.
There are a whole range of problems behind the current mess, but government policies under both Labor and the Coalition are largely to blame. Nelson’s reforms just take it another step further.
Shame about the best people leaving academic life. Shame about the destruction of a once world-class education system. Shame about the students. Shame about the nation’s future.

Posted by Peter at 12:18 pm | Comments (7) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Peter,
    I agree that it is going to get a lot worse with the Nelson reforms.
    The old liberal university that we once knew, worked in and loved (for all its faults) as a public institution is disappearing into history.
    Tis time to move on and do the research/community obligation bit that was once connected to enlightened citizenship and critic of society outside the university.

    Comment by Gary Sauer-Thompson — December 7, 2003 @ 10:22 am

  2. I harbour hope that the now obvious crisis in academic life will draw more of my ex-colleagues into public life, if only to defend their own direct self-interest. I know some academics see such activity as unsound, and inherently messy, but if Oz is to ever have a healthy intellectual culture, trained academics have to get their hands dirty.

    Comment by petermcmahon — December 8, 2003 @ 11:00 pm

  3. I think you’re 100% right on this point. I found out the other day that some universities give academics points for commenting on issues in the media – QUT, one of our sponsors being one – but in other universities the only publications that count are in refereed journals, with predictable results.
    I know you won’t agree with me on this one, but given the increased reliance on fee paying students, perhaps more Universities will skew their internal incentives towards encouraging academics to engage as a way of attracting more students.

    Comment by Graham Young — December 9, 2003 @ 6:04 am

  4. Errr…. Graham? QUT might have a Community Services Database that *records* media duties and gets our Schools some funds, but it is actively *discouraged* if media responsibilities come at the expense of research. With the move towards internationalisation and accreditation occurring broadly in the academic sector there is an imperative for all classes and marking to be conducted by doctorially qualified staff and for fewer and fewer young academics to find a place in the academic sector.
    I’ve never regarded my career in academia to be permanent. I enjoy the work, but would be a fool to think I have permanency, or even financial suppport to pursue the research that interests me. I see myself working in academia for perhaps another 3-4 years before I will need to get out and work in the private sector for some years both as a means of sustaining my professional credibility and as a means of getting away from the workload expected of me now. Because while on paper I’m only supposed to be working a 40 hour week, I can’t remember when I last worked less than 70 hours a week.

    Comment by jj — December 9, 2003 @ 10:10 am

  5. JJ’s taken the problem on as a challenge, a very healthy attitude. But she must work in a discipline that can be translated into proper paid work. My doctorate in the social sciences wouldn’t even get me back my old tractor driving job.
    Graham’s point about the PR advantages of publically high profile academics is well made. Trouble is, everything about fee paying students means more teaching work load for academics. The attitude of fee paying students is different, more like consumers, and it clashes with the old academic ways. All too often it clashes with optimal educational practice as well.
    And as I said earlier in this blog, it’s often the bright academics (like JJ) who move through while the rest dig in. Personally, I see more legal cases ahead as students claim better value for money.

    Comment by peter mcmahon — December 9, 2003 @ 11:49 am

  6. You cannot learn without already knowing.

    Comment by Finstrom Lisa — January 26, 2004 @ 7:23 am

  7. HI
    I am thinking about leaving the private sector (which I do like) to go into academia. One of the considerations is the work life balance that academia seems to offer (on an external view). Is it true that 50-70 hours a week is normal in academia? I would be extremely grateful if anyone is prepared to comment on the pros and cons of life as an academic. thanks

    Comment by sw — May 13, 2004 @ 1:28 pm

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