Farewell to Academia

Fourteen years ago, aged 40, I resigned from my position as a tenured lecturer in the Physics Department at University College London and took up my current position at the National Physical Laboratory.

I periodically reflect on this decision which at the time I found painful and traumatic. In retrospect, it was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I ever made.

At the time I felt I was leaving ‘academia’, but now I feel differently.

The bullying culture, total focus on income, and indifference to teaching quality or intellectual matters were actually signs that ‘academia’ as a concept was withering.

In the same way that Agri-culture became Agri-business, so ‘academic culture’ has become ‘academi-business’.

The fundamental problem is that academic institutions used to have academic goals – furthering knowledge and inspiring minds. But now they are conceived of as being primarily businesses, and so they have primarily business goals. And every other activity is subservient to these goals.

I recall a conversation with my then Head of Department at UCL, Brian Martin,  who told me that he would ‘make my life hell‘ if I didn’t bring in £200,000 of income in the next year – a task both he and I knew was impossible. He advised me particularly that I should not doubt that he would really do it.

Nowadays this lesson is pre-learned and is assumed by all staff. This recent article about destructive dismissals at Kings College London reminded me of the insane logic of the process. But KCL is not unique: I hear similar stories from other universities both in the UK and abroad.

The business perspective is re-shaping how we concieve  of what used to be called ‘an academic life’.

In the sciences, universities acknowledge teaching and research because they have associated income streams which can be maximised. The employment of short-term staff for both teaching and research (MacLecturers(™) and MacResearchers(™)) is booming. (This is incidentally the reason why I encourage students to study science to highest level they can, but not to take jobs in the subject.)

However scholarship– advanced reading, learning and synthesis – is simply not acknowledged as a category of useful activity. Thus we find ourselves in a world where people are encouraged to publish more and more, but fewer and fewer people are reading the articles!

In my opinion, aside from vestiges in the richest universities world-wide, ‘academia’ is dead and it is time to acknowledge its death and say, farewell.

I, for one, am missing it already.

3 Responses to “Farewell to Academia”

  1. iamamro Says:

    You were a huge loss to academia. If people can’t see that then they are fools. You were the best lecturer I had – by far. Sadly most didn’t care one bit.

    Yes, looking back, that was the time that academia died in this country. How depressing that Brian Martin said that to you. I don’t blame you for leaving. It must have been very traumatic and I was very surprised you weren’t in academia any more – but it all makes sense now.

    Best wishes to you.

  2. Stephan Says:

    That’s kind of sad, but at least you are happy with moving on.

  3. Richard Says:

    Michael: I also think you made a great decision moving to NPL, but I think you may have overstated the case about the death of academia a tad. Since you and I were students the academic world has changed in many ways, not all of them bad. In no particular order:

    – massively increased access to higher education, a far larger fraction of the population go on to higher education. Not just in the UK/US but throughout the world. this is, generally speaking, a good thing.

    – While an ever increasing number of publications is driven in part by quantitative assessment, the internet age has also made publication easier, cheaper and faster and their ease of access was simply unimaginable in the 1980’s. This can’t be all bad! I see the effect in the best of new PhDs applying for faculty positions – they are far more knowledgeable than my peers, and certainly me, when I was in their position.

    – technological developments (in many cases themselves the result of academic research) make it possible to do things that were impossible not long ago. I’m thinking particularly in the realm of scientific (and other forms of) computing, quantitative biology (genome sequencing, assaying RNA expression and protein abundence…), imaging at all scales. The rate of discovery in many fields that make use of these technologies is mind boggling.

    – yes, there is an increase in the number of part time academics, but there has also been an increase in the number of full time academics (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-ever-shrinking-role-of-tenured-college-professors-in-1-chart/274849/) – and my feeling (could be wrong) is that the part-timer phenomenon is more prevelant in non-science fields, while I feel that your comments are largely concerned with the state of academia in the sciences and engineering. Perhaps things are different in the UK, but the part-time instructors I know in my field are gainfully employed full-time elsewhere and teach because they love it.

    – I don’t see an “indifference to teaching quality” – my impression is there is a heavier focus on teaching quality now than any time in the past 30 years. In my experience academics take it seriously and so do university administrators.

    I really dont like the fraction of my time I spend asking for money to do research, but when averaged over the past 20 years, it is small compared to the time actually spent doing the work. Academics like to complain. And times economically have been hard for many in recent years, I dont see why academics should be exempt. In times past, science was largely the province of the independently wealthy, or those lucky enough to have a benefactor. It is really only in the past century that this changed, and even for much of that, academia excluded most. If there was a golden age of meritocratic academic pursuit freed from considerations of income and productivity, it was pretty short.

    Maybe academia in the US is quite different (certainly universities are far more independent, even the public ones) and things are really that bad in the UK. But also perhaps your dreadful experience at UCL has coloured your broader view. There’s plenty wrong with university education and research, but there is a great deal right with it too.

    Michael – what you need is a couple of weeks of sunshine and fun in California to cheer you up! Come on over.

    – Richard.

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