Thirty-somethings are sick of grumpy old staff

January 14, 2005

A generation gap divides academe. Jim Mills wants more senior members to stop moaning and smell the roses

It was all good news as we met at the British Library.

Most of us knew one another from conferences and similar events but, being in our thirties and belonging to the same generation of academics, the lunch was more friendly than professional.

There was much to gossip about: recently sealed deals with publishers, research awards to fund new projects, temporary contracts going permanent and so on.

It was only when one of the gang mentioned a meeting in their department that the tone of the chat darkened.

"Nothing but the gripes of the over-fifties," he observed, lamenting the wasted time on what seemed to be little more than a counselling session for an older generation of academics.

Similar stories poured forth, of curmudgeonly "senior" staff who refused to timetable their publications to meet a research assessment exercise schedule as they resented its limitations on their creative freedom. There were anecdotes about them handing over yellowing, handwritten teaching notes to those running departmental web resources for students, obstructing the compilation of quality-process documentation and scoffing at the Higher Education Academy.

Underlying this general contempt for the standards of contemporary practice are attitudes that tend to draw on the same well of pessimism; that bureaucrats are taking over and piling on the form-filling for the sake of it, that standards are dropping, that the Government does not support higher education and that resources are more scarce than ever.

One of the assembled remarked that the doom-mongers were doing a "Ryan", after the public bleating of Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, who complained in The Times Higher that "in the Sixties, the bargain was a good one; you gave up the chance of wealth, power and fame and got the life of a free spirit in exchange... more crucially, what was on offer was freedom and optimism, and what has replaced them is a deep, sullen pessimism".

Ryan's generation might feel this way but this is not the case for our generation. And our optimism is well founded.

The RAE has created opportunities for a wider section of academics to publish their research and many young staff have risen to the challenge to produce regular high-quality work.

It is not uncommon for the mid-thirties lecturer to be finishing off a second monograph and contemplating a third.

Research for this work can be funded through the increasingly well organised postdoctoral or early career schemes offered by a number of funding bodies.

A decent-sized grant and a monograph are usually enough to secure a position even in these times of job insecurity. This is how it should be, as a university post is a prize worth having.

It is true that there are more students than ever to prepare for and resources can be tight.

But universities and institutions such as the HEA now ensure that new staff have plenty of opportunity to think about the skills that they will need for teaching and are not expected to be capable of working with young minds simply by virtue of having persevered with a doctorate.

Indeed, the large numbers of students studying for doctorates, and sharp young postdocs willing to put up with rolling contracts or a stream of one-year posts suggests an optimism and desire to be part of the higher education system like nothing else.

After all, academe continues to promise much compared with other professions. I know of no colleague in a British history department who works the 60-hour week of some of my contemporaries who went into law, or who cannot spend the weekend with their children because they are away at an audit, as is the case with many of my contemporaries in accountancy or management.

I know that having stuck with academe, most of us in our thirties are not badly paid and that we can spend far more time in contemplation of the matters that fascinate or infuriate us about the world than any one else.

It might seem like a curiously seasonal message, but perhaps it is time for the nay-sayers and gloom-merchants to brighten up a little and look forward to the future with the same optimism as those who have recently chosen academe to be their future.

Jim Mills is an Economic and Social Research Council research fellow and senior lecturer in history at Strathclyde University.

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