A few that got away

February 5, 1999

Does the research assessment exercise get you down? Do you dream of jacking it all in for a job in the real world? Kate Worsley talks to some of those who have made the leap from the ivory tower and landed on their feet.

Eco-warrior Margaret Jones, recently found occupying a Gloucestershire warehouse to oppose the Avon ring road, was once a senior lecturer in American literature at the University of the West of England. Her willingness to brave the cold of January for the sake of some trees makes her unusual. But in deciding to leave academic life she is not alone.

Association of University Teachers spokeswoman Monica Hicks claims the general expansion in university staff has obscured the significant numbers now choosing to turn their backs on the ivory tower and explore opportunities in the "real world".

Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency found nearly 6,000 people of all grades left UK higher education in 1996-97. More than 300 went abroad, 540 joined other kinds of education institutions, 100 went into public sector jobs and 300 found work in the private sector. More up-to-date information is expected from the Bett inquiry into pay and conditions of service, due to report in April.

Alan Carr, president elect of the AUT, says anecdotal evidence already suggests the numbers leaving are rising, significantly among the young. He blames fixed-term contracts, low salaries and increased workloads caused by greater student numbers and onerous research and quality assessments for the trend.

But is going a good idea?

Common escapees are academics in fields such as law, who go into practice after several years in teaching. For example, barrister Stephen Moriarty, 43, left Exeter College, Oxford, in 1986 for a highly successful career in commercial law.

"A year after I left, the university sent me a form asking how many books I had produced and how many lectures I had given," he recalls. "I wrote back and said it was forms like this that had made me leave teaching. It takes a particular sort of recklessness or determination to trade in a job for life for a one-year, Pounds 4,000 scholarship. But I was lucky in that I wasn't married and could always have gone back."

"It depends on your personality," says Tom Harris, who left Brunel University to set up a company manufacturing heart monitors. "Stay in academia if you are not bothered about seeing a project through and would rather carry on extending the state of the art. Progress will be more rapid in academia. In four years at Brunel I worked on ten projects, since I left I've had just one."

Expertise in business and technology can often prove a profitable asset outside of academia or alongside an academic career.

"For myself it was right to move between sectors," explains Mary MacLeod, 50, now director of policy research and development at ChildLine. MacLeod's work as senior social work lecturer at North London University was always concerned with bridging the gap between theory and practice, so in 1991, having just completed a major project and with her children reaching school age, the ChildLine job was a perfect opportunity.

Perhaps the most difficult position to be in is that of the dedicated researcher who can no longer see a future or reward for their work. One molecular biologist in her 50s gave up her research post at Oxford three months ago after 20 years on short-term contracts.

"I gave up simply by not applying for further research funding, with a lot of regrets and some bitterness about the crazy system that wastes so many people's potential and a lot of public money." She retrained as a careers adviser and is looking for work.

Tom Harris, 33 'I became a paper millionaire' THEN: Lecturer in design and technology department, Brunel University. NOW: A director of Cardionetics, which developed and manufactures C.Net 2000, a real-time heart monitor for GP use.

WHY I LEFT: "I just ended up in academia: I was always more interested in applications than the theoretical work."

I MISS: "The variety of projects. In a typical week I would visit three factories."

TRANSFERABLE SKILLS: "My teaching background - being used to stringing ideas together and presenting them professionally - it really helps."

LIFE NOW: "I very much enjoy the corporate side of things: company strategy, talking to investors and seeing a project through. After my first degree at Brunel I started a PhD in neural computing in 1988 and taught on the undergraduate option course, getting a full-time post in 1991. In 1992 a project one of my undergraduates was doing, an infant heartbeat monitor, was earmarked for potential development. The university did not want to get involved with commercial risk, so I formed a company with two businessmen.

In 1995, we won a Pounds 45,000 industry award to fund a PhD student, market research and product development. The next year another award, of Pounds 120,000, enabled more product development and by 1997 we had a small investment round.

All this time I was teaching full-time and running the centre for computing neural applications. I had an understanding head of department, and in any case, the university was expecting to get a royalty stream at some point. But I had not expected the development process to take so long. What was interesting was the physical effort it takes to get an idea into production."

Katrina Rolley, 36 'I could onlysee things getting worse' THEN: Fashion history lecturer on short-term contracts for eight years.

NOW: Information technology developer, Lloyds TSB Insurance.

. Why I left: "I still loved my subject but the life I was leading was draining me."

I MISS: "It was a relief to give up, but also like losing a part of myself. I miss it all the time."

TRANSFERABLE SKILLS: "My academic skills were fundamental to my getting a distinction in my MSc in IT: analysis, time management, self-sufficiency, communication."

LIFE NOW: "It is an intellectual challenge of the sort I wasn't getting in academia, because of the lack of career progression. I wanted to do research, and lecturing was the obvious place to start to develop my academic abilities and career. Initially I found it very stressful: I'd had no training and at 24 I was not much older than a lot of my students. But I felt I was learning a craft, which was a reward in itself.

In fashion history, like any small field, there are very few full or even part-time posts. While I loved my research and knew I was quite capable, I'd always felt ambivalent about having to live the job 24 hours a day to get on. I also found it difficult to earn enough money to survive. The worst period was when I was teaching at Stoke-on-Trent on Monday, Manchester on Tuesday, East London Poly on Wednesday, Leicester on Thursday and Ravensbourne on Friday. I wasn't being paid for the preparation or travelling, and at 32, with two and a half degrees, I was still signing on three times a year.

I found it all very gruelling. No real support, always going in to new places: ultimately it got boring - if it's Wednesday it must be East London Poly, and have I told that joke to this lot already? My hours were being cut, classes getting bigger, more marking. I could only see things getting worse and I could see colleagues in a similar state.

In January 1994 I was almost at the end of my MPhil and I decided to stop lecturing for a while. I did some costume work on films. In a film studio if you ask for a cappuccino you get a cappuccino; in academia you travel miles for an interview and don't even get offered a Nescafe. It sounds trivial but year in, year out, when they are relying on your commitment, you start to feel exploited.

I left London for Brighton because I knew my income would drop, and for a year I worked in a shop earning Pounds 110 a week and being patronised by customers. Then I heard about an arts-graduate conversion MSc in information systems at Brighton University, where I had a reasonable chance of getting a grant. Four years on, I may be starting at the bottom again but I am on more money and have infinitely better prospects."

Ardon Lyon, 65 'I'm now a gentlemanof leisure - I've got a groundsman!' THEN: Professor of philosophy, City University.

Now: Property developer.

WHY I LEFT: "Why should I spend my time on administration for someone else when I could be doing it for myself?" I MISS: "I don't miss anything."

TRANSFERABLE SKILLS: "I can think big. When I deal with banks and solicitors and so on I find myself questioning the terms: why is it done like that? And they just say: 'No one's asked that before'."

LIFE NOW: "Financially I am horrificallyin debt, but it looks as though it is all going to be OK.

I had been teaching at City University for nearly 30 years and I took early retirement when I was 50. It was quite a pragmatic decision. We were effectively 50 per cent over-staffed and I thought it would help everyone in the school. I was wrong of course, and there is no longer a full philosophy degreeat City.

There were more and more reports and assessments and the students were thinking for themselves less and less. Of course I can judge an essay in three minutes, but doing it properly takes longer.

For three years after retirement, I taught eight hours a week. It was a dramatic drop in administration, which I reckon took up a good third of my time. In my spare time I became a director of my sister's fashion business in Bournemouth. It keeps me off the streets but doesn't make any money.

But while I was helping her look for a flat I found a fantastic 1830s classical mega-gorgeous house in Somerset, an ex-hotel with 40 rooms, a coach house and stables in six acres. I borrowed a good deal of money and started doing it up. It has taken me five years and I've sold two cottages and put two apartments in the main house on the market, I need to sell these before I can start doing up the rest of it. I plan to live in part of it and keep a couple of rooms in London.

I certainly don't regret leaving. I thought I would miss City but I don't at all. When I go back everyone is feeling so gloomy."

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