An "army of gypsy professors" is wandering the United States, unable to find full-time employment because higher education is too bottom-heavy, the American Association for the Advancement of Science heard here this week. And a glut of PhD students means that some take up to eight years to find academic posts.
Forty per cent of college faculty members are part-time, up from 22 per cent in the 1970s, said George Brown, Democrat and member of the House of Representatives science committee, of which he was chairman until last November.
The rate of unsuccessful grant applications is shooting up - not because of funding cuts so much as because the number of applications is rapidly increasing.
"We can no longer deny the excess capacity, or more correctly, unfocused capacity in our higher education system," Congressman Brown told the conference. "Our graduate degree-granting institutions can no longer support the PhDs they are graduating.
"This army of gypsy professors illustrates both the financial pressure on higher education institutions and the excess of PhDs for whom their higher education directs them solely toward employment in higher education."
A professor from Indiana University told the conference that his prospective PhD students are considering doing masters degrees instead "so that they don't price themselves out of the market".
Congressman Brown said: "Our extensive higher education system (employing 1.5 million professional staff in 1989) is a fairly recent event. Now the justification for such a large system can no longer be found in our national military security."
He suggested that the threat of massive unemployment could become a weapon with which to defend higher education.
Congressman Brown said: "Does research and high-technology development demand PhDs or can technically-adept masters and undergraduate degree students fill some of the roles that the vast army of underpaid and under-employed post-docs currently perform?" It was also suggested that academia should move more rapidly towards the "virtual university", in which academics could participate, cheaply and perhaps part-time, through high-tech link-ups.