The risks and rewards of academic life in the big city

David Bignell reflects on the trials and tribulations of scholarly life in London

August 24, 2015

London, we are often told, is the world’s greatest city. Rich in diversity, an economic powerhouse, home to dozens of world-famous higher education institutions – little wonder it’s so popular with students from around the world (mayor Boris Johnson is fond of saying that there are more Chinese students in London than in any other city in the world – outside China).

But what’s it like for academics? A recent analysis of data from the Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey 2015 (and if you work in UK higher education you can click here to take part in the 2016 survey) suggests that for scholars, London may not be a city paved with gold.

The survey results suggest that employees at London universities have significantly lower job satisfaction scores than those located in almost every other region of the country: just 42 per cent of staff at London universities say that they would recommend working at their university, compared with 74 per cent of those working in the northeast of England.

Here, in an analysis posted in response to the findings, David Bignell, emeritus professor of zoology at Queen Mary University of London, reflects on what makes London a special case – whether it’s for good, bad or ugly.

Academic London: a 'fragile flower' in need of nurturing

“It helps to be brought up a Londoner (as I was). Then at least you don’t feel you’re in an alien land, even if you sometimes fear the city is being overwhelmed by alien cultures. But these have come and gone over the centuries, or been assimilated.

“Nevertheless I groaned inwardly when a happy and successful postdoc in a rural idyll (Exeter) brought me, in 1980, the reward of a lectureship in “The Smoke”, as the capital used to be somewhat unfairly known (Westfield, then Queen Mary).

“To my surprise, the academic environment in the smaller colleges of the great octopus (the University of London) was relaxed and friendly. Nobody thought the worst if you compressed your teaching and administration into three days a week, and stayed at home the other two days to focus on writing. In fact it was largely the norm.

“Better than this, London was still the focus of so much of the UK’s academic life that interaction and stimulus was in abundance, and travel to other places at home and abroad just that little bit easier.

“This all added up to productivity without pressure, and the commute was useful for tutorial marking and flicking through the pages of Current Contents. Even walking over London Bridge each day stirred the patriot in me just enough to dull the stress of the rush hour.

“The downside was, as ever, the cost of living set against academic pay; for much of my early career my salary matched the earnings of a London bus driver, and on promotion to senior lecturer equalled those of the Tube drivers who brought me to work.

“There were no frills, but one subtle (and unspoken) advantage was that you couldn’t socialise with your colleagues outside the workplace, or return to the lab after dinner or at weekends, paradoxically making your world a little wider and less obsessive.

“How much advantage remains in being an academic in London? One suspects the financial stress is the same, or worse. Where once you could have a reasonable family life if your partner was a teacher, secretary or nurse, now it seems you need an accountant, doctor or City slicker.

“But viewed overall, the academic buzz in London is as loud as ever. Are not Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London world-class, driven by their aggressive target-setting? And Queen Mary not the ninth best in the UK? And St Pancras not the runaway choice for the Francis Crick Institute?

“And our city the cultural hub of the world? How can we fail? But as the small-college ethos dies, colleagues still working complain of being overwhelmed by multiple agendas and targets, the one fatal feeling that can turn London from an opportunity to a hellhole.

“Of all things that shouldn’t be threatened the most important is the personal space we were once allowed to find our individual ways of coping with the capital. Beware: London’s academic prowess is a delicate flower and needs special treatment.”

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Reader's comments (1)

If I can be excused for adding to my own thinking, I didn’t want to create the impression that the University of London had been a good place for slackers in the old days. What made Queen Mary tolerable, and even productive, was that it was relaxed. Everyone agreed it was a dreadful environment ... and laughed about it. Nobody interfered in your research, but you still had to do it if you wanted to get on, and criteria for promotion did not differ from other places. That much hasn't changed, but the esprit de corps that perversely emerged from geographical adversity seems to have disappeared for the moment under the burdens of multiple agendas and performance management. Or am I just out of touch? In recent years Queen Mary has done as well in the arts and humanities as in the sciences and medicine. I know that lectureships in the arts are highly sought after because of the London factor, perhaps less so in science but who knows once the Crick Institute is up and running? In the 1980s, when facing a temporary dearth of research funds, I headed schools liaison for Queen Mary. The job was to persuade sixth formers and their parents that London was neither a den of iniquity nor unaffordable. It was often a hard sell, but there was still a core of prospective applicants who really wanted the capital because it was so exciting. You could never exhaust what London had to offer. Very few students who eventually came transferred elsewhere, whereas there was a small but steady stream who moved in to London from the more campus-orientated provincial universities. Finalists were particularly pleased to be living on top of the biggest job market, and could keep their flats and their friends as they searched for opportunities after graduation. The question is whether the student euphoria extends into postgraduate, postdoctoral and (eventually, if you’re lucky) into lectureship life. Many would-be lecturers must have been (and still be) wondering whether you could string together a whole career from short-term research contracts (to do it on short-term teaching contracts would surely be fatal). It might just be feasible in London, given the plethora and diversity of institutions, but the system is against you as we still have no sound career framework for those in the postdoctoral sink between PhD and permanent (or what passes for permanent these days) lectureships. Most postdocs expire in their mid 40s, as they are seen as too expensive and, whatever their record, as career failures. But then with the strict performance management now being applied to full contract academic staff, many so-called permanent careers are going to peter out then anyway. A former colleague of mine estimated the half-life of a lecturer in my old department was now 47 years of age. Let me throw in the issue of partners. There has always been a kind of divide between those academics who marry (read partner) within the system and those who marry outside. I have never been able to decide which was best. Another academic understands your challenges and stresses better, but accommodating a second driving ambition within a family unit is a stress in itself and the provinces may not provide the necessary opportunities for two partners to succeed in the same location. London scores here, and if your partner is in teaching there should generally be no problem for he or she to find work anywhere in the South East. Whether academic life and teaching together now pay enough to support a decent family life is debatable, but a few more affordable corners still exist, for example East Kent, East Essex, South Bedfordshire. The commute is manageable and provides opportunities for light work and reading if you can get a seat both ways. Service standards are also slowly improving. This perhaps argues for living at the end of a line. There is rather a nice sense of relief and detachment when the train pulls out of the London terminus each evening, and some private reassurance the following morning when you have some time to scan over the lecture notes you hadn’t reviewed since last year’s teaching on the same topic. Just look over at what other people are working on in the same carriage and you’ll appreciate that you are privileged to be pursuing something in your work life that is actually interesting. But in the end it’s the buzz that counts. The University of London means something well beyond the Metropolitan boundary, and you’ll have the best opportunity for professional contact, collaboration and stimulus that exists anywhere in the UK.


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