We might moan, but we love the academic life

September 17, 2004

The future of Britain's higher education sector will be shaped by academics now in the early stages of their careers. But the voices that are heard most often are those of the old guard, who have spent a working life in the sector. For the first time, The Times Higher has surveyed the opinions and aspirations of academics in their twenties and thirties to establish their particular concerns and views on university life. ICM Research surveyed 318 academics aged under 40 in a telephone poll of university staff in Britain, revealing the clearest picture yet of their views

Young academics interviewed for The Times Higher show little hesitation advising their children to follow in their footsteps.

Overall, a resounding 63 per cent said they would offer no barriers to their children pursuing an academic career, while 30 per cent would advise against it.

Despite academics' reservations about aspects of university careers today, they were consistent across the age group questioned, the grade, discipline and the region in regarding an academic career as not being something to avoid.

No academic can ignore students for long - and students' increased dependency on academics generated strong views. Overall, 47 per cent of academics strongly agreed that students expected more study assistance than they did when they were undergraduates - in some cases just a few years earlier. A further 32 per cent of academics tended to agree. That perception was rejected by 16 per cent.

Among academics aged up to 30, 74 per cent agreed that students' dependency had increased, rising to 80 per cent for the age group up to 40. That view was most marked among engineers (85 per cent), arts academics (81 per cent) and business studies academics (84 per cent). It was less prevalent among social scientists and medics. Senior staff - perhaps those with little direct student contact - were less likely to detect this tendency (71 per cent) than senior lecturers (86 per cent) and lecturers (78 per cent).

Academics' reluctance to put their children off university life comes despite a degree of scepticism over the career opportunities offered if universities meet their target of attracting 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education. While 40 per cent thought there were likely career benefits from the expansion of student numbers, 47 per cent did not agree and 13 per cent did not know.

Academics aged up to 30 were more optimistic about career opportunities arising from the target (49 per cent) than those aged 31 to 40 (39 per cent). Medics were least optimistic (26 per cent), while those working in engineering and education (48 per cent) were the most optimistic.

There was little confidence that the revenue from variable fees after 2006 would have a significant impact on academics' ability to do their jobs better.

Some 23 per cent of those aged under 40 thought fees would help, compared with 60 per cent who disagreed. The "don't know" score of 16 per cent reflected uncertainty about the way the scheme would work at institutional level.

Anger at the impact of short-term contracts was widespread. Some 13 per cent agreed that short-term contracts were the only practical way of organising teaching and research, while 84 per cent disagreed with this proposition. Disapproval was as high among the 31 to 40 age range as it was in the under-31s, who were more likely to be directly affected. It was particularly marked among medics, 91 per cent of whom disagreed that it was the only practical method, 74 per cent of them strongly. Those on the lecturer grade took a tougher line, while 76 per cent of readers and professors were critical.

Despite the levels of concern at the impact of growing commercial pressures on universities, younger academics appeared confident that the profession was safeguarding its integrity.

Some 10 per cent of academics said they knew of an academic who manipulated research results under commercial pressure. Overall, 86 per cent had no knowledge. Interestingly, the highest incidence (19 per cent) of cases of such personal knowledge was in the area of education. Medicine reported the fewest (4 per cent).

david.jobbins@thes.co.uk

'ALTHOUGH FINANCIAL PRESSURES ARE ACCUTE, THEY ARE CERTAINLY WORSE OUTSIDE ACADEME'

* Petra Boynton fought hard to become an academic, after being urged by her school to leave at the age of 16, and she would be happy for her children to become the third generation of academics in her family.

But Dr Boynton, 34, a lecturer in international healthcare research at University College London, had concerns about the pressures that today's academics face.

Dr Boynton, whose father was an academic, said: "I devoured books because it was something I desperately wanted, and I would certainly want my children to go to university.

"But we put too much emphasis on going to university and no way near enough focus on the joy of knowledge and learning."

Dr Boynton said that The Times Higher's survey findings rang true. She said that tuition fees had made a difference to patterns of student behaviour, although this varied between the sexes and according to factors such as age.

She said that students at a previous university were very forthright. "I was approached by students who would say things such as 'I'm paying for you to give me a handout' after I had asked them to do their own background reading after a lecture.

"You as a tutor are now a product. I would never have dreamt of saying that to a tutor."

Dr Boynton said that, while academics were prone to moaning, most stayed because they loved their research. But pay was the real issue.

While she stressed that UCL treated her well, Dr Boynton said: "It's so depressing. Many academics simply cannot afford to live or they are offered something better in industry."

Added to this were research pressures that could mean that the importance of teaching was downgraded.

Dr Boynton said: "If you are doing something such as running an outreach group rather than research, that's seen as bizarre."

* Schools spoon-feed children and fail to teach them how to think, according to Adrian Newton , 40, senior lecturer at Bournemouth University's School of Conservation Sciences.

Dr Newton said that today's students needed much more help than they used to and that this might also be connected to the expansion of student numbers.

"It's partly a change in schooling - they expect to be spoon-fed and haven't been encouraged to think deeply," he said.

"If you give them a task, you have to define it very clearly; if you set something open-ended, many really struggle."

He said that the Government's drive to get half of all 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010 also raised problems.

"What does society want of graduates today? The big trend is towards inclusiveness and lowering barriers to higher education, which is laudable but potentially lowers standards," he said. "Universities are intrinsically elitist. It's about setting standards (and maintaining high standards of teaching and research is critical to their credibility)."

Dr Newton said that while academics complained about not being paid as well as they would be outside academe, they would be shocked by the pressures of working on the outside.

Having experienced life outside academe, Dr Newton said: "The benefits of academic life are not financial, they are much more to do with the freedom to pursue your own interests.

"Although the financial pressures are acute, they are certainly worse outside. The whole viability of business depends on earning revenue, and middle and senior management equivalents have huge responsibility in terms of bringing money in."

Dr Newton admitted he felt less pressured now than when he worked outside academia. And, while he would never rule out a move out of academe, and despite his view that undergraduates are not what they used to be, one of the things he missed when he left academe was student contact. Anthea Lipsett

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