US grass no greener

July 23, 2004

Colin Bundy sees wistful glances being cast by the Government across the Atlantic to US universities with their large endowments, major research capacity and higher salaries (Soapbox, July 9). He is right to sound a note of caution. The philanthropic culture that produced their endowments is much less marked in the UK.

Research in the US is focused in the private and public research universities. But in these universities, half of the teaching is done by non-unionised contingent labour and postgraduates - partly to reduce loads for the tenured faculty (who can still teach more than their UK counterparts, except perhaps in the sciences) and to reduce costs.

A small elite of tenured professors and administrators sit at the apex of a salary pyramid, earning more than they would in the UK; but for those in the non-tenure ranks, the picture is much worse than in Britain, and the chances of landing a tenured post on merit are slim in most disciplines.

With no research assessment exercise, unhealthy competition between US institutions is less intense: but tenure (which has its good sides, too) permits some academics to do too little for too much for too long, creating severe animosities at departmental level.

The much-praised expansion of higher education in the US has simply meant many undergraduates do not have basic learning skills - when I was based at a US public university as many as 25 per cent of my students dropped out after their first year. Adaptation to new commercial realities has been slow and piecemeal. With state funding declining since 9/11, budgets are tight and staff morale is low.

In 2003, the university I worked at cut whole departments, froze salaries, dismissed excellent but untenured faculty and raised tuition costs significantly. Reminds you of Britain, doesn't it?

Simon Batterbury
University of Melbourne

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