Why I... believe you should retire if you want to be an academic

December 19, 2003

I am enjoying being an academic more this year than at any time since the 1960s, when I started. With three books coming out next year, time to do two research projects, teach undergraduate and postgraduate classes, mentor new staff and read voraciously, I am feeling especially productive and useful.

The reason for this happy state? I "retired" officially in the summer. It is bizarre that you must hang up your boots to be able to do properly the job to which you were appointed. "Once an academic, always an academic" is my philosophy, so I carry on most of the usual tasks, working roughly the same hours, totally focused. The university doesn't pay me, but I have a room and a computer, the library is round the corner and I am involved in no meetings or audits. Bliss.

When you step off the accountability merry-go-round, you realise that it was as painful and pointless as banging your head on an anvil. Each year I added up the masochists' tea parties I had attended - senate, planning and resources, school board, research standing committee, pre, during and post-inspection meetings, mission statement writing groups, paper-clip reclamation working parties. The memory plays cruel tricks, so one or two of these may have been invented during the brain-corroding phases of real meetings.

The drain on time and energy reached criminal proportions as we moved from a high-trust, low-accountability society to the exact opposite. Governments no longer trust professionals, so everything must be forecast, dissected and ticked off when complete. Hospital consultants complain they now spend five hours a week more than they used to on bureaucracy. Forty per cent of teachers quit within three years, many saying they came into the profession to teach, not tick boxes. Police officers spend hours writing up arrests that take all of five minutes.

In the School of Education where I work, we also have inspections from the Office for Standards in Education. There have been six in the past seven years, and they are back again this term. While I now spend a whole day reading book proofs, tutors given grade ones only 16 months ago are filling out paperwork for a pointless revisit. You feel like saying "We're still good" every time a new appraiser walks through the door.

I must hold the British all-comers' record with Ofsted - ten different inspectors in one term. The following year, my son came to do his postgraduate teacher training in the school and was inspected twice. We both got top grading, but I could not resist asking if there were family discounts. Within two years, our school had Ofsted, the Quality Assurance Agency, the research assessment exercise, an internal audit, a financial review and numerous other semi-formal appraisals. I was research director for the last RAE, and when it was over, I gleefully shredded the 1,045 emails it had generated. At the beginning of term I looked through the calendar of meetings I would now be pardoned. I could write, research, teach, read - with nothing of the odious penumbra that used to blight these central academic activities.

Instead of writing only early in the morning, after 5pm and at weekends, I am now creative during the day. I teach without a faceless bloke-with-clipboard at the back of the lecture room. No business plan, no utopian mission statement. I cannot remember a single sentence from any plan I have ever read. Worse, I cannot remember one from any plan I have ever written.

Released to be a true academic once more, I have a dream. One day some brave politician will trust professionals again. Have faith in the majority and you can come down heavily on the few who betray you. The accountability shackles will fall away, releasing huge amounts of creative energy. In this blissful dream, pigs can fly while fairies dance merrily at the bottom of the garden.

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