Working in academia should not be damaging

Universities’ demands are taking too great a toll on individuals’ health and happiness, as our first work-life balance survey shows

February 8, 2018
Hand sticking out of a mound of crumpled paper
Source: Getty

Hell hath no fury like an academic told to be grateful for their long summer holidays.

When Lord Adonis suggested as much as part of his barrage of attacks on the supposedly overpaid, underworked academic classes, he said that he expected a “flood of angst” in response. He duly got it.

The flood becomes a deluge in our cover story, which draws on our very first survey of university staff attitudes to work-life balance.

More than 2,000 people working in higher education took part, with responses from 52 countries (the majority from the UK, the US and Australia).

The results paint a picture of a career that, for all its upsides – and there are many – can be deeply damaging to individuals’ health and happiness.

Some of the stories will shock: take, for example, the woman who terminated a pregnancy because she was on a short-term contract and did not feel able to start a family in such circumstances.

Others, while less dramatic, describe the toll of a working life that for too many feels like being asked to juggle several balls more than is physically possible.

The risk of a survey such as this is that responses tend to cluster at the extremes: those at the end of their tether may be more likely to take the time to say so.

But even if they are to one end of the spectrum, their experiences highlight how unmanageable many are finding university careers as they are currently structured.

Nevertheless, it can also be useful to hear from those who are doing very well but who recognise that, structurally, all is not well in the state of higher education.

Such a view was articulated by the mathematician Eugenia Cheng in a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific.

Cheng, who is now scientist in residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, described the relief she felt a few years ago when she secured a full-time lectureship at the University of Sheffield.

“Doing postdocs is fun, but it’s very stressful because it takes basically an entire year to go through an academic hiring process. You start your one-year postdoc and you immediately have to start applying for your next job. So getting that permanent job is such a relief,” she explained.

Returning to the UK after stints in the US and France for the permanent post at Sheffield was, however, “a culture shock”.

“Things have been changing – the higher education system has been gradually brutalised,” Cheng said. “I really wanted to come back and contribute to the education system that had given me so much. Some people just want to do research, but for me education has always been really important so I wanted to contribute not just to educating students [at Sheffield] but to the education system, and to guiding the way that a university should be – I was really excited about that.”

Reality soon bit. “I loved teaching, but you get stuck into the academic year and you find that you don’t have any time to do research at all…There was so much administration and bureaucracy, and at the start of each academic year you had a realisation that you weren’t going to take a breath until it was all over in August after the summer resit exams, when you’d have two or three weeks to frantically get some research done.

“You barely have enough time to remember what on earth it was you were doing a year ago, and then it all starts again. One summer it was just starting up again in September, and I thought, ‘Gosh, this is how it’s going to be until I retire.’”

This is not how it should be. Someone with Cheng’s obvious passion for her subject, for teaching as well as for research, and clear talent for communicating something as potentially impenetrable as pure mathematics, should not be quitting, and leaving teaching behind altogether, in order to find the time to do research.

Hers is not a tale of personal woe, but it is a tale of a system that is in important ways broken. And as the accounts in our cover story reveal, it is breaking too many who work in it.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Campus crush

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