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Who wants to be an academic?

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FOR anyone contemplating a career in academia, a recent report published by the Department for Education and Skills is well worth reading. The same can be said for universities hoping to employ them. The 317-page report – ‘Recruitment and retention of academic staff in higher education’, by a team at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research* – was prompted by concerns that there could soon be a shortage of university teachers because of the increase in student numbers in recent years and because of a ‘retirement bulge’ as staff recruited during the expansion of the universities in the 1960s reach retirement age. In the event, the study did not find evidence of severe recruitment and retention problems in the higher education sector. However, it did find evidence of some difficulties, in that job vacancies sometimes remained unfilled and there was some reported decline in the quality of applicants. The study covered the whole university sector and did not consider clinical disciplines or veterinary medicine specifically. Nevertheless, it provides a thorough and occasionally fascinating analysis of what life as an academic is like. At a time when the number of UK veterinary schools is about to increase, with the new school at Nottingham expected to start taking students in 2006, it provides useful insights into academic recruitment generally. It may also provide some insight into a question of continuing concern to the veterinary profession, namely, how to attract more veterinarians into research.

Pay is an important factor affecting career choice, and academic salaries were found to be relatively low compared with other highly qualified jobs in the UK. Only at the top end of the scale, and for those in the later years of their career, did salaries compare favourably with those in other sectors. Interestingly, however, it was found that those at the beginning of their career tended to underestimate the financial rewards available from academia, particularly when pensions were taken into account.

Comparison with eight other countries showed that salaries sat somewhere in the middle of those paid elsewhere: UK academics earned a similar amount to their counterparts in Denmark, France and Canada, but more than academics in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Japan. They earned less in real terms than academics in the USA, particularly at the top end of the scale, and the report suggests that, if this is also true at the beginning of the scale, the UK risks losing its most able academics to the USA at both ends of their careers – the dreaded transatlantic brain drain.

The report notes that, while pay is likely to be a factor encouraging the outflow of academics to the USA, it will ease recruitment from Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Japan. However, it also warns that turnover is likely to be higher among staff recruited from abroad, so reliance on overseas recruitment could lead to problems in the future. As things stand, 40 per cent of recruits to UK academia as a whole are non-UK nationals. Overall, the main source of entrants is students and employees in other sectors, with students making up 34 per cent of the total, and employees in other sectors accounting for 63 per cent. Those making a career change to enter academia usually did so from ‘higher level’ occupations (managerial, professional, associate professional and technical) rather from lower level jobs via a degree as a mature student.

The study found that almost 40 per cent of research students were keen to have an academic career and that a further 21 per cent saw this as being of equal interest to some other career. Among existing academics, just over half had been keen to pursue an academic career. The report notes, however, that ‘many research students and academics did not seriously consider alternative careers and, for those progressing from a research degree, entering academia often appears to be a form of drift, to a job which is known.’ It would be interesting to investigate whether this is true in the veterinary field; intuitively, it seems unlikely to be the case, as a clear alternative career path is available from the start.

In terms of job satisfaction, academic staff were found to be ‘somewhat less satisfied with their jobs than those in the workforce as a whole’. Research was a major source of satisfaction, and many would have preferred to spend more time on this, although the report notes that ‘self-determined research tends to be of interest, rather than that determined by others’. The demand for research output, and the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in particular, were viewed negatively. Although teaching was not the most important reason for becoming an academic, it was seen as a positive aspect. Administrative tasks and organisational change tended to be viewed negatively.

There may be more to all this than individual preferences: in terms of promotion prospects, research output (and obtaining research funds) is all-important these days and, while teaching and administration are a necessary part of academic life, they tend not to be rewarded to the same extent, particularly in the older universities. The report draws attention to the problems that this can cause, and makes some useful suggestions for alleviating them. It explains how it can affect the promotion prospects for female academics and also highlights the paradoxical situation whereby universities tend to overlook their own ‘home-grown’ researchers in trying to meet the requirements of the RAE.

Like previous documents, the report draws attention to the detrimental effects of fixed, short-term contracts and the difficulties this can cause for recruitment and retention in both academia and research. Specifically, it remarks, ‘Whilst the employment of young staff on fixed-term contracts may seem a rational strategy from the point of view of the university or department in the light of the fact that it is difficult to determine their research and teaching abilities, this may be rather short-sighted. Not only do new and potential staff desire a permanent post, but the uncertainty created by such posts increases the likelihood of their leaving not only the university but UK higher education as a whole.’

It also draws attention to the tensions caused as universities attempt to introduce new management methods: ‘The ethos and human resource structure (particularly in the old universities) was very much of individualism. This does not sit entirely well with an increasing use of current management techniques (monitoring, appraisal, emphasis on development, etc).’

Clearly, there is much diversity in the higher education sector, and some of the findings will be more applicable in the veterinary field than others. Also, veterinary academics face clinical demands that are not a requirement elsewhere. Nevertheless, the report will also make interesting reading for those currently employed in the veterinary schools, to see how their own experiences compare with those of academics in other disciplines.

* ‘Recruitment and retention of academic staff in higher education’, by Hilary Metcalf, Heather Rolfe, Philip Stevens and Martin Weale. Research report RR658, ISBN 1 84478 5238. Available at www.dfes.gov.uk/research, or from DfES Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 0DJ, price £4.95 .

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