Sleepless nights in the academic drive for profit

May 1, 1998

Ruth Payne has recently started to suffer panic attacks.

A former president of the Association of University Teachers at the University of Aberdeen, she was conducting a survey of stress levels at her university but had to stop through work pressure.

Student numbers in her department of biomedical sciences doubled from 68 to 142 between 1995 and 1996 . She estimates she now works from about 9am to midnight, plus weekends.

"There are far more students who need some kind of support," she says. "There is pressure on everyone all the time to make money. There are more or less monthly bulletins on research funding allocations and it is not considered good if you haven't published."

Now 61, she says her only comfort is that she has only a few years until retirement.

Peter Chapple (above) blames a drive for profits for the stress he suffered in his last five years of teaching. Now retired and teaching part-time abroad, he says the stress manifested itself in back pain, stomach problems and sleepless nights while running a masters course in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath. In his 22 years at the university he had never suffered before. On his doctor's advice, he took two months' leave and later retired, aged 60. "My sleep patterns were bad, I was generally feeling pretty awful all round and it didn't do my relationships any good," he says.

Ironically, the problems occurred even though his centre was making money.

Margaret (not her real name) was charged with setting up a course with cash from Europe. But she was worried that her college was creaming off centrally more than it was supposed to. "I felt I wasn't doing my best for the students because I couldn't use the money I had worked hard to get hold of," she said. Torn between blowing the whistle and putting her course in jeopardy or struggling on without the money to provide the standard of teaching she wanted, she became steadily more stressed. She began to suffer from alopecia, which led to depression. She has now taken early retirement on the grounds of ill-health.

Photograph of Peter Chapple by Jeff Morgan.

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