I quit! Why I am leaving UK academia

Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out - and he's off to Germany

July 25, 2017
Hand squeezing stress ball
Source: iStock

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 that 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 per cent 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 (ie, 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 that holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

And this in a sector that 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.

Read next: working conditions undermine the notion of scholarly vocation

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 (TEF), to put it simply we have in recent times witnessed an administrative coup in UK academia. In an article focusing on the University of Oxford 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, ie, 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 15 years: the often fantastic students; the generous and fascinating colleagues; the conditions that sometimes allowed me to flourish; the pay that 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 15 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 that 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.

Michael Edwards will soon be professor of electronic composition at the Folkwang University of the Arts. This post was originally published on his personal blog.

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Reader's comments (11)

And the above observations are precisely the same reasons I took early retirement age 56 back in 2010. I can tell you the exact day our University broke. It was the day an order came from on high that exam marks for a course must average 50% for the class, and you had better come up with a pretty good reason if the average deviated significantly from 50%. Says it all in my opinion.
It's the loading of straw onto the back of the camel: increase clerical tasks for academics, increase administrative and bureaucratic tasks, reduce control over standards, changing systems without consultation, introduction of terrible software that actually makes work harder not easier, TEF, REF, performance monitoring, and the endless nagging. Daily communications up from one or two memos a day to 30 emails. The right wing politicians state that for there to be increased pay there must be increased productivity. Well, the productivity has increased massively - and pay has been cut by c.16% in real terms. The camel's back is in danger of serious injury.
....and in addition to this there is the painful disrespect and mistrust of administrators of academics. No one is trusted to be competent do his/her work - and it will end exactly so. Don't overestimate the situation in Germany though - they are on the same path with maybe a 5 year delay. At least at the moment as an academic you still have a bit to say in what happens in the department.
Absolutely true - it's high time someone wrote this. Every academic I work with feels the same and it's becoming a joke. Best of luck in your new post - I don't blame you at all!
I am mindful of a dated publication titled Warwick University Ltd, 'is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasing authoritarian efficiency, intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management?' I have yet to see the efficiency, instead a marvelous capacity for waste. Perhaps it time for a sequel, The Russell Group Inc?
Yes UK universities have sadly become captured by a bureaucracy that takes away all the increased productivity of the academics and researchers. Lecture sizes are bigger, student numbers are massively bigger, academic staff have grown a bit but bureaucracy has increased massively. Too much quality control on Research and Teaching quality - control by overpaid bureaucrats - you bring in research money and it mostly disappears in "overheads". Do not get me wrong there are some excellent course officers and people doing great administrative jobs in UK universities but there is an awful lot of overpaid good for nothing managers that often give themselves high pay while doing there very best to devise systems and controls to restrict the pay of academics and "underlings" that are doing excellent work.
Not just HE of course, everything: the rest of education, health, social services, the judiciary, the police, are any of our public systems not doing so? Job creation in this respect is as liable to lead to national impoverishment rather than prosperity. The state apparatus is suffocating itself with the social and economic equivalent of grey goo.
It all traces back to the spurious notion that 'Government must be run like a business'. Sadly many in the general public believe this bit of verisimilitudinous neoliberal mental detritus. The reality is that government in a democracy is fundamentally NOT like a business, nor should public institutions such as universities, state funded schools and the NHS be run like businesses, either. Business is based on custom -- you get services based on income -- while the public sector is based on rights, benefits and obligations of citizenship -- regardless of income. Money is a terrible way to allocate distribution of public goods since the market doesn't care how one accumulated his or her money. Working as a nurse or working as a mafia hitman -- doesn't matter. If you have the money, you get the service. I am optimistic it will change, however. A great die-off of older populist conservatives is beginning as the demographic curve begins to work against them, weakening the power of their cynical upper class manipulators. All of this can be reversed by a single, determined, progressive majority government. It happened once, then was reversed, and can happen again. Don't give up.
Having joined academia after a career in industry, I am shocked on an almost daily basis about the ludicrous amount of paperwork. A few years ago I looked at how I spent my time - approx 10 hours of admin (including sitting in pointless meetings) for every hour spent teaching, creating materials for students, research, tutoring etc. It's got much worse since then. Most academics spend their evenings and weekends answering the never-ending stream of emails that demand this or that form be filled in. This work could easily be done by the ever-increasing number of admin staff. But no, these folk seem to exist to demand more admin from academics, not to support academic staff and leave them free to do what they were actually hired to do in the first place. I, too, am seeing vast swathes of enormously experienced, respected and talented people take 'early retirement', pushed out by the relentless drudgery and the preference for bright young things (aka cheaper employees), with no industry experience . Like other posters I have seen the massive pressure to give higher and higher marks. Where once a First would have been given to only the truly exceptional, now it is seen as appropriate for the averagely good. It has become almost impossible for a student to fail, even if they never bother turning up, and even then, that is seen as the fault of the academic who has to produce endless reports on how they will do better to engage these students who don't attend in the first place. I, too, am truly fearful as to where it will end. I would be joining the rats leaving the sinking ship if I could afford to, but wage stagnation and rising retirement ages means I'll be writing thousands of words each day to fill out forms that help no-ne for the forseeable future
We use terms like neoliberalism and neo-managerialism to describe what's taking place in HE (and the public sector, NHS, schools, even the C of E). But I have a better term - Tyranny. One last heave-ho for The Good Old Cause, anybody?
Absolutely spot on. Our unversity is proudly run as a business with students being customers. I do not know where the money from the increasing number of students goes as most of us have not had an increment for years let alone promotion. Admin load is beyond ridiculous and behind all of the streamlining, scaffolding, engaging with stakeholders, looking forward and embrasing the opportunities there is a handful of overworked staff trying to deliver education and research despite the best attempts of the management. When they leave, the remaining buerocrats can continue giving themselves professorships and prizes and salary increase and congratulate themselves on the kobwell done...

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