Education secretary Charles Clarke must have known he was asking for trouble when he put his name to a foreword that compared universities favourably with multinational corporations in terms of career opportunities. It did not take the unions long to accuse him of painting an extremely selective picture of campus life. When would the company cars arrive, they must have wondered, and which private health scheme would their members be offered? Whatever happened to the low pay, long hours and incessant bureaucracy?
Yet, for all the drawbacks ignored by Mr Clarke, many academics and administrators do recommend a university career to their students. Indeed, there are plenty of union members' offspring working on campuses around Britain and further afield. The advice to pursue a more lucrative (but probably equally stressful) career, if it is given at all, is often rejected. That is because many in universities believe that they would not find work elsewhere nearly as fulfilling. Although up to a third of academics tell pollsters that they are thinking "fairly seriously" of starting a new career, most will still be in their jobs next year.
None of this is a reason to exploit university employees' enthusiasm for their work, as successive governments have. Academics and administrators, not to mention the armies of even lower-paid people who enable universities to function, deserve better pay and conditions. But it does a disservice to students and universities to write off higher education as a career option.
It is fashionable to be downbeat about the academic world, but it provides more variety and flexibility than most other fields of employment. The satisfaction of seeing students thrive, or a research project bear fruit, exercises a hold on many of those who could probably double their salaries in business or industry.