When B is better than A

Less money and control, more stress - will anyone flourish? asks Tim Birkhead

January 21, 2010

Higher education is in the grip of a recession. I cannot help but see this as a scene from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Lord Mandelson slowly and painfully squeezing the academy's generative organs, while at the same time whispering in our ear that despite the discomfort we should continue to smile and maintain standards.

Excuse me? What standards? Are these the standards we lost when higher education expanded? Or are they the standards we have slumped to in the past decade or so, to the point where the average undergraduate thinks that writing an essay means cutting and pasting from Wikipedia - and then goes into the teaching profession to pass on all they've learnt?

In the words of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters: "Money, so they say/Is the root of all evil today."

Seeing politicians fritter our funds away on their expenses, and seeing bankers bailed out only to start giving themselves extravagant bonuses again is sickening ... but not nearly as sickening as the idea that we should strive to maintain educational standards even in the face of dramatic funding cuts. Nor as sickening as The Grand Old Duke of York nonsense regarding student numbers: up, down, up again but with penalties for going too high, and now cuts accompanied by a threat that we must maintain standards.

When student numbers were increased two decades ago, the move came with a warning that we must maintain standards. We tried, but it felt like swimming against the tsunami of the National Curriculum. Now here we are, with no real prospect of student numbers decreasing but faced with a much-reduced budget, and once again we're urged to maintain standards.

The tragedy is that in comparison with MPs and bankers - and probably many other sectors of society - research-active academics generally provide extremely good value for money. They are rarely off sick; most do not take their full holiday entitlement - daft, perhaps - and most work far longer than the statutory 37-hour week. Most also care deeply about standards of education among undergraduates.

Academics are motivated to work long hours largely because, in a sense, they are working for themselves. As much research has shown, being in control of your own destiny is a crucial part of staying motivated and healthy.

In today's uber-competitive research-active environment, type A personalities dominate. A type A personality is exactly what is needed to chase those funding opportunities to the bitter end and be able to get up again after having grants or papers rejected.

The research-active ethos of higher education runs on unbridled ambition, which, together with academic freedom, is why universities have been such a staggering success over the past millennium. Type B personalities choose some other occupation.

It was once thought that if you were a type A personality (defined as being time-conscious, ambitious and impatient), you were more prone to heart attacks and an early grave than type B personalities (defined simply as laid-back).

The logic of type A and B personalities is simple: from an evolutionary perspective there are no free lunches. Burn up a lot of energy being a go-getter and the cost is more stress and a greater risk of heart attack. Basically, the typical type A strategy is to live fast, die young: get PhD, get postdoc, get partner(s), beget lots of genetic and intellectual descendants, then drop dead at an early age.

More recent research, however, has shown that this is not the whole picture. It turns out that the early mortality component applies only to those type A personalities who are not in control of their own destinies. In most walks of life, this refers to being further down the pecking order, where more dominant individuals dictate and control what you do, as is the norm in many occupations. But not so in the academy, where research-active staff have a great deal of control over their lives. Being both type A and not in control is what leads to stress and coronary failure.

Because academics have traditionally been their own bosses, they have experienced relatively little stress. That's not to say there is no stress - there's plenty, especially associated with grant applications - but compared with occupations such as nursing or general medical practice, there's less.

This is about to change. As we experience ever-greater pressure to maintain standards and cope with massive financial cuts, it is inevitable that our sense of not being in control will increase. And not just among academics; support staff expected to cope with fewer resources will also suffer more stress. The risk is not that there will be more sick days, but that the goodwill on which the academy relies so heavily will be eroded as more and more people feel disillusioned.

Far from being advantageous, type A is probably the worst thing to be in a recession, for the increased demand will inevitably create stress. Now is the moment for type Bs to flourish. Recession? Standards? Am I bothered?

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