Why Academia Is No Longer A Smart Choice


So often the perception of university life in Australia is a cosy existence involving luxurious philosophical debates, long holidays and international sabbaticals.

The reality is far less glamorous.

The past 10 years has seen an escalation of requirements for entry-level jobs so great that starting positions aren’t even advertised. The over-supply of PhD graduates has made competition so fierce for tenured positions that casual contracts have replaced ongoing junior positions. Our best graduates, fresh from the biggest challenge higher education can throw at them, face their most energetic years vying for the privilege of this state of insecurity.

As the system currently stands, junior scholars are asked to prove their worth to universities in ways that those hiring them never had to. The heads of search committees today didn’t even need a PhD to start their career, yet devise intricate formulae for assessing the accomplishments of those seeking to follow their example.

A book, multiple journal articles and a history of grant funding is now usually necessary on top of a completed dissertation to make a shortlist after graduating. How is it possible to achieve any of these things, when handing in a thesis also means handing in any claim for library access, desk space or institutional support? The industry has divested the responsibility of training their smartest students to a level where they can gain access to sustainable long-term employment.

For those who do succeed in getting a foot in the door in academia, the news isn’t much better.

A recent survey of academics at one Sydney university showed a 100 per cent response rate when asked if they worked on weekends. My own research in the past few years has shown how tenured life involves a never-ending series of online administrative tasks that consume work and home life. All too rarely are these duties punctuated with face-to-face contact with colleagues and students — often the principal motivation for scholars to aspire to the job in the first place.

Branding strategies, overseas campuses, international recruitment and research outputs are the operational priorities for Australian universities. This leaves the value of teaching ambiguous at best since prestige comes from winning grants that absolve senior scholars from teaching undergraduates.

There is barely enough infrastructure to cope with our current international student cohort. Classrooms are major exercises in generating inter-cultural dialogue among students and teachers alike and we are forever told that it is unrealistic to expect serious language, skills and extra-curricular support for international candidates. Should governments really be so surprised when these students literally protest in our streets?

As is the case in many industries, the budget bottom line is used to justify cost-cutting of all kinds but the global financial crisis rings particularly hollow as a rationale for ingrained problems, such as the fact that most tutors aren’t paid to attend lectures or mark essays. Most don’t have access to an office to meet with their students even though tutors perform the bulk of undergraduate teaching.

Between a third and a half of teaching is now performed by casual staff, which means universities actually save the significant costs of leave entitlements and full superannuation for these "sessional" employees.

Holidays and weekends are irrelevant anyway when one’s time is spent juggling the bulimic requirements of multiple tiny contracts, often spread across industries and between different university employers.

Most universities also face the problem of having to force permanent staff to take annual leave because so many feel unable to afford the time away from the office (another problem not limited to university workers). The four-semester calendar and career-defining grant applications are perfectly timed to swallow Australian summers.

This week, a national conference will bring together senior academics, junior faculty and students to talk frankly about working conditions in universities. Sponsored by the Australian Research Council’s Cultural Research Network, the State of the Industry conference takes as its focus the work cultures affecting those seeking to pursue teaching and research careers now and in the future.

The organisers (of which I am one) are scholars at some of the lowest rungs on the scale — not the suits, not the tenured profs and not the administrators who usually have the role of speaking about university life. What this means is that anyone coming along might actually hear what it’s like to work in a university on the ground, in the classroom and at the hot-desks that young scholars are increasingly offered as the meagre deposit on a career.

Organising the conference I’ve heard a range of stories of PhD graduates now choosing any kind of work — even administrative work within universities — rather than face the conditions of academic performance today. Anyone wanting to have children is particularly likely to fall into this category.

With 40 speakers from over 20 universities, and an organising committee spread across three states, the conference has overcome a range of obstacles that actively prevent collaborative ventures across the university sector.

For instance, concerns from my own university about the number of participants from other institutions, combined with the size of the host university’s logo, meant that I could expect little support or publicity. Although the conference was my idea, our marketing office refused to facilitate press coverage, instead asking for transcripts of speeches by University of Sydney scholars only.

This is just a taste of the corporate logic now infiltrating university life. Its mission is to celebrate innovation in dollar terms, proving the brand power of elite institutions while discouraging attempts to reflect on the wider purpose of higher education for the nation as a whole.

The contradiction at the heart of today’s universities is the expectation that employees will uphold the ideals of scholarship in tandem with commercial values, and that they will do this in every area of their working life except pay. Is it any wonder that our peers are leaving for other professions?

The State of the Industry conference reflects on the fate of those of us who have grown up in the corporate university, who face immense expectations to qualify for jobs in a system that is hardly recognisable, and who remain passionate enough to fight for the career we were led to believe in.

As scholars, we are tired of seeing good people leave the industry broken by its demanding and ever-moving goal posts. When a government promises an education revolution, it needs to make sure it has a strong frontline.

For over a decade a generation of graduates have been told to wait for Baby Boomers to retire to begin our lives as professionals, as home-owners, as people with families, as people who might want to have weekends. So many of our smartest friends have already seen through this infinitely suspended promise.

A great wealth of talent will be lost if our energy, ideas and hopes are ignored any longer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.