Academia: The great “resignation”

Has the “great resignation” struck academia? Nature asks this question (and inevitably blames the lack of diversity and inclusion in the process, as any narrative spin goes). However, there are key essential takeaways from here and echo my thought process. I have been writing about it for some time (and trying to get into a PhD).

Has the ‘great resignation’ hit academia?

He is one of many academics who say the pandemic sparked a widespread re-evaluation of scientists’ careers and lifestyles. “Universities, spun up to full speed, expected the same and more” from struggling staff members, he says, who are now reassessing where their values lie. The demands add to long-standing discontent among early-career researchers, who must work longer and harder to successfully compete for a declining number of tenure-track or permanent posts at universities. And Jackson had another reason. He received what was, in his opinion, a racially insensitive e-mail that constituted harassment and alluded to using social media to police staff opinions, which, he says, was the last straw.

I can’t blame the shifting bureaucracy burden, but there has been a reassessment of the research priorities. How many PhD’s do you need to research linguistics? Or “anthropology”? I am not denying the importance of these disciplines, but the Western “civilisation” can offer around 300-400 years of research material (after the Renaissance). Before that, it was “dark ages” and nothing more than inquest or burning people on stakes. You could head to Africa to bleat about setting up a SMS based “technological revolution”, get featured in The Wired and tick all boxes for “social-justice” or even create a “non-profit” for “indigenous people”. I am sure everyone’s getting tired of the usual tripe and political correctness, even as the countries face a looming shortfall of grain.

Therefore, the research priorities are due for correction; and long overdue. However, the worst is the cut in pensions, which is grossly unfair to individuals who have worked hard to earn tenures in the first place.

On 31 March, Caspar Addyman, a developmental psychologist who studies babies’ emotions at Goldsmiths, University of London, announced his resignation, effective in June, on Twitter. His resignation letter cites, what was in his opinion, faculty frustration with university mismanagement, which has culminated in “a massive vote of no confidence [in senior administrators], countless individual appeals and testimonies and unprecedented local strikes”. But it was the 38% cut to his pension that finally pushed him to leave.

This is terrible. I have long rallied against photogenic campuses with manicured gardens and “top-notch faculty”; the more successful ones are able to market themselves better than others to attract “foreign students”. However, on close scrutiny, I have seen that universities are now pushing individuals to follow a specific template without any space to challenge contemporary thought processes. The purpose of university education should be to question conventional dogmas; that’s what higher education should be encouraging – a spirit of enquiry. To sustain those individual research goals, you need to trim bureaucracy and keep them off from campuses. Why is it that I don’t hear about the administrators taking a pay cut instead of the researchers?

“I could imagine spending the rest of my life figuring out why babies were happy, but after seven years, it became too hard to imagine doing this grind forever,” he says, referring to increasing administrative responsibilities and what he describes as an ever more regimented approach to teaching. Although being an academic felt like his identity, Addyman didn’t consider moving to a different institution. “Why stay in this world if it’s just going to be a slightly different version?” he asks.

Down under, there are similar issues:

Similar workforce reductions have occurred in Australia, a country hard-hit by the loss of revenue from fees for international students, who could not enter the country owing to COVID-19 restrictions. By May 2021, one in five academic jobs in Australia had been cut. “Now, we’re seeing a lot of people look for work elsewhere, or retire if they can afford it,” says Lara McKenzie, an anthropologist who studies academic-workforce trends at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Those who remain lose trusted colleagues and don’t want to take on the massive workloads left behind, she adds.

PhD for fees. That’s why they are trying to “attract foreign students” with promises of work-visas and “citizenship”. You’d remain an anonymous tax-payer, though, to support their rapidly ageing population. Something more troubling:

Naomi Tyrrell, a social-research consultant based in Barnstaple, UK, set up a Facebook support group in 2020 called AltAc Careers UK to help people transition out of academia. Before COVID-19, she says, the most visible exoduses were from biosciences, computing and medical sciences — disciplines with obvious research opportunities in the private sector. “That’s changing a bit. [Being overworked] is a key factor right now” for those in all disciplines who are planning to leave, she says. The shift towards the for-profit model of UK university management has also frustrated people. As student enrolment increases, so do precarious contract-based positions — as well as complaints from staff about being taken for granted. “I hear things like, ‘Nobody said thank you or asked if I was OK or how the university could support me,’” she says.

These are warning signs. And enough grist. There’s not much payment in teaching – which is sad because application processes depend on precisely the same “research outputs”. It also ends my mistaken belief that universities were meant for putting ideas first and learning to fail. Currently, this belief is held hostage by shrinking budgets for grants and reassigning priorities. Unless you have clear roadmaps, things won’t change.

One thought on “Academia: The great “resignation”

  1. “research priorities are due for correction; and long overdue.” – well said. I have felt this for a couple of years now. But it seems unlikely that it will change because academia is worse when it comes to gate keeping and guarding group interests.


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