Golden age of the don is not entirely a relic

May 2, 1997

The pay may be static, but the holidays are long, redundancies are rare and extra-curricular activities plentiful. So what do academics have to complain about? Vincenzo Raimo casts an outsider's eye over British academic life.

British academics are continually stereotyped as being hard done by - poorly paid and overworked. Are they really more demoralised than those in other professions or simply better at voicing their concerns?

The 1960s have been described as the "golden age of the don". It was a period when market forces favoured academics. Universities were expanding and there was a shortage of well-qualified recruits. In order to compete in the labour market, universities had to offer attractive salaries and conditions of employment.

While academic salaries today may not be as attractive as those offered in the 1960s, a number of the favourable conditions of employment remain for a large number of academic workers. Permanent academics still have a large degree of freedom in choosing how to devote their time, particularly in relation to research but also in terms of the subjects they teach and the options they offer.

Permanent academics are relatively free to undertake other "extra-curricular" activities, paid or unpaid, using university facilities, as long as they do not "adversely affect the proper performance of the member's university duties".

They also benefit from good holidays - one of the major advantages of university employment according to a survey of academic staff at Sussex University. And, unlike most other workers, academics benefit from periods of paid leave (usually between one term in seven or nine depending on the university), for, among other things, their own "educational development".

Since the Education Reform Act of 1988, universities have been able to dismiss staff on the grounds of redundancy. Despite this change in the law, redundancy remains uncommon and, in any case, it can only easily be a reason for dismissal for staff appointed or promoted after 1988.

In my survey of academics, staff at Sussex University were asked whether they considered the conditions offered by their profession to be better, about the same, or worse than those offered to other professional workers. The majority considered their terms and conditions, excluding pay, to be better compared to those of most other workers.

In addition, all the evidence suggests that despite increasing management of academic work and heavier workloads, academics still enjoy their work. In my own questionnaire 84 per cent place interest in their work (research and teaching) as the single most important factor which led them to embark on a university career.

However, these favourable conditions are being enjoyed by fewer and fewer academic workers every year. As universities continue to increase their reliance on casualised labour an increasing number of university teachers and researchers are paid hourly, on short-term contracts, or enforced part-timers. As well as lacking job security, these academic workers rarely benefit from holiday or sick pay and many are forced to waive their statutory rights to redundancy pay.

The difficulty faced by the unions and others in arguing for better pay and terms and conditions for university faculties, is that in most subject areas universities are not facing serious difficulties in recruiting new staff.

The question of declining quality is often raised. The evidence, however, would suggest otherwise. The research assessment exercise results show that more research of international standing is being published than ever before and the teaching quality assessment reports have also been mainly positive.

Newer academics are also often better qualified than their older colleagues. Stephen Logan in The Times notes that in the 1960s "you could get a job without a first and certainly without a doctorate" whereas today, because "competition is so fierce", it is unusual in most disciplines for appointments to be made to candidates without a PhD (though they may include those about to submit) and without a strong research profile and probably also some publications.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a shortage of well-qualified applicants - the contrast with the situation facing applicants today is stark. The evidence suggests, therefore, that there is not a major problem in terms of the quality of academic staff or in recruiting them in most disciplines. Where, however, there clearly are problems and where attention might usefully be focused, is on the motivation and commitment of staff. With over 42 per cent of academic workers now employed on short-term contracts universities will increasingly find it difficult to "rely on the goodwill of staff within a very labour intensive operation".

One of the problems to be faced by the Association of University Teachers and others is that it is difficult to quantify commitment and motivation towards the employer, particularly in terms of cost. There are, however, costs incurred by universities as a result of the declining motivation and commitment of staff. Tasks, often unpaid, which were previously undertaken by academics, such as service on committees, and college posts such as wardens or senior tutors, are no longer being carried out on a "voluntary" basis.

The growth in the number of professional administrators is not only a result of the increased size of universities and the new managerialism that has been required, but also because universities have found they can no longer rely on academics to fulfil the full range of non-academic functions they once did.

Vincenzo Raimo is administrative officer of the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex.

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