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.