Why I’m quitting the academy

Alessandra Lopez y Royo feels that money-obsessed universities are killing off integrity, honesty and mutual support

August 22, 2013
Source: James Fryer

When I received my doctorate in art and archaeology nearly a quarter of a century ago, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to leave the academy. But I am about to swap the security of a monthly academic salary for the precariousness of independent scholarship – if that concept even still exists – because I feel I can no longer sacrifice my dignity and integrity within a university.

My post-PhD life was a whirl of visiting lectureships, research fellowships and awards. These included a once-in-a-lifetime Getty Collaborative Research Grant that enabled me to travel frequently to Asia to study performance practices in collaboration with senior academics at the National University of Singapore.

After nearly five years at the University of Oxford, I was hired by the University of Roehampton in time for the 2001 research assessment exercise, to teach on the dance programme. I was not a dance specialist but the department believed I had the kind of “non-Western” expertise that their ambitious new dance programme was looking for.

I did what academics are supposed to do: I taught, researched, supervised PhD students and did administration. I consistently applied, successfully, for research funding, and by 2007 I had been appointed reader.

But the sense of unease that I had begun to feel soon after my appointment gradually became overwhelming.

I dreaded the start of each academic year. I rarely had an opportunity to draw on my subject area expertise in my teaching, even at postgraduate level. Instead, I was expected to be a jack of all trades, lecturing to a student body whose first-years frequently required remedial English and who almost all refused to read beyond lecture notes, ignoring the bibliographies I carefully put together.

Nor were we allowed to censure them: we all had to bow to the managerial imperative of treating them as customers who have to be satisfied, allowing them to show impatience and lack of respect with impunity. And despite their inability (or unwillingness) to understand what studying for a degree entailed, inflated grades prevailed.

But we also short-changed the students in some ways. For instance, we were never totally honest with them about their employment prospects, even though I know that a significant number are now unemployed and in debt, and many are working in completely different fields. For some, their dance studies degrees still only boost their CVs for jobs as Zumba teachers. Roehampton’s department was rated in the 2008 RAE as the best in the UK (there are not so many, after all), but this only caused complacency, which to me seemed totally out of place.

Staff were also undervalued by management. One example of this is the inflexible working practices that mean motherhood and academia are still largely incompatible.

Meanwhile, the “impact” agenda, which now drives the research agenda, is foreign to the humanist values that attracted me to academia as a space of free, non-instrumentalist critical thinking. I feel part of an oppressive and hierarchical structure that demands the compromise of individuality and creativity in order to fit the mould.

Roehampton’s most recent research excellence framework-inspired recruitment drive made me question whether I still wanted to be part of this system. Young, promising academics who had taught in the department on fixed-term contracts for several years were not given a chance because the university was chasing world-leading publications, so the department had to fill up with readers and professors.

Nor is my experience unique. Go to any department in a middle- to low-ranking university and you will hear similarly woeful tales. When Margaret Thatcher decided both that polytechnics should become universities and that the principle of the free market should be applied to higher education, she sealed the new universities’ fate. With such an uneven playing field, they must jockey for any advantage, and rigour is often the first casualty.

Research funding has become quite impossible to obtain for those outside “elite” research-intensive universities. Everyone in the arts and humanities is desperately trying to forge alliances with scientists, to gain access to research money and add greater credibility to their work. Research councils’ budgets are tight and academics are pitted against each other, often harshly peer-reviewing a competitor’s application because it might be in the way of their own.

Universities, aping the worst businesses’ obsession with their bottom line above all else, are churning out MAs and PhDs with little regard for the future either of students or subjects. I feel sorry for those currently embarking on doctorates, doomed to discover that their expertise is neither understood nor valued when – having realised that the academy can no longer absorb them – they enter the mainstream job market.

Perhaps my decision to vacate my position will have the knock-on effect of seeing some idealistic young academic – with enough publications to be submitted to the REF – offered their first permanent post. But if they were to ask me for advice, I’d tell them to think long and hard before accepting it.

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Reader's comments (2)

One question is of course, once you have left how can you influence the academy not to give in; not to accept the role of an exploiter of the student's purse with the profits ending in the managerial clique. I am currently writing from Mexico City; though still seeking my reinstatement as Lecturer in Cell Biology at my former department at Queen Mary University of London; the managers have breached employment law in my view in dismissing me on grounds of redundancy. The department advertised my position twice. On the first round the person who was offered the position was relatively experienced; likely realised what he was signing up to; and declined the offer. On the second round, a less experienced youngster, post-doc of the new "head of division of cell and molecular biology" was offered the post - and accepted it. Returning to your well-written article and its ending, I wonder what "permanent post" means exactly for the rank-obsessed universities in the UK...
It needs to be pointed out that job insecurity in early career, shady appointment practices and the requirement to teach outside one's immediate expertise are nothing new in academic life. Nor is it wrong in principle that an institution should produce highly qualified postgraduates who cannot find work in their immediate field; a Masters or a PhD is surely of greater value if some part of the skills acquired can be transferred elsewhere. One difference from years ago is that higher degrees are now more welcome in the general workplace, where once they were thought merely to signify otherworldliness. Having said that, it is worrying to hear that obsession with league tables, REF-returnability and impact, now so prevalent within the so-called elite universities, is spreading to the post-1992 world where universities like Roehampton ought to thrive on their distinctiveness rather than their resemblance to Russell Group sweatshops. My own experience (as an external examiner) is that some decency remains in parts of the post-1992 sector, where enlightened managers can still demand a primary commitment to enthusiastic and diverse teaching, but at the same time encourage and recognise contributions in research where these can be fitted in to a busy student-orientated timetable and achieved at modest cost. I see no evidence such research lacks quality, indeed in some instances it is arguably better as it is produced without the crushing burden of performance management. Perhaps it is in places like this where careers can be pursued that offer some element of traditional ideals, at least until the inefficiency of every institution casting itself in the same mould is finally recognised. A broader issue is whether the long-delayed effects of Thatcherite reforms (line management, loss of tenure and corporatisation) have now created a cadre of managers whose interests are no longer aligned with those of their academic staffs.