Leader: Useful tonics and bitter pills

August 12, 2005

There is little to fault in the diagnosis, but the proposed remedies may not all benefit the patient. Asked by the Government to recommend ways of increasing the recruitment of academics and improving the retention of existing staff, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has provided plenty of evidence for those pressing for better pay and working conditions in British higher education.

The academics' lot, it seems, is not a happy one. Generally, they are more dissatisfied with their working conditions and remuneration than similarly qualified counterparts in other services and industries. All-too-familiar concerns are raised about administration and bureaucracy. The institute suggests that an improved pay deal should be a more transparent pay deal, where golden handshakes and performance points are seen by all to be fairly applied. Rightly, concerns are raised about contract staff, their lack of job security, the way they are treated by institutions and the impact this has on their desire to pursue an academic career. Intriguingly, the NIESR puts a different gloss on the purchasing power of UK academics compared with that of their European, North American and Australasian counterparts.

The institute suggests that working in a British university may be a tempting financial prospect for overseas recruits, albeit not so attractive as the US.

Nevertheless, one of the NIESR's suggestions may be too bitter a pill to swallow. Perhaps not surprisingly, surveys of staff and research students reveal that the appeal of an academic career lies, for many, in research rather than teaching and certainly not administration. The institute suggests that one way to increase academics' job satisfaction would be to give staff more time to pursue their research interests - unencumbered by burdens such as administration and teaching.

All well and good if there are more administrative staff to take up the bureaucratic burden and if there are more academics to share the teaching load. But it is a different matter if academics are to be encouraged to pursue research interests at the expense of teaching quality. If the NIESR had asked undergraduates what they wanted, a very different picture would have emerged. The more a university degree costs, the higher the quality of teaching students expect.

It would be a pity if, in a laudable attempt to assess the working lives of academics, the NIESR had unintentionally devalued universities' mission to educate their students.

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