40 years of academe

by Chris Bertram on May 5, 2004

John Sutherland in the Guardian looks back over “40 years in British higher education”:http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/columnist/story/0,9826,1209332,00.html and tells us what has changed for better and for worse. The goods include the breakthrough of women and the provision of decent coffee; the bads are salary erosion, the PhD as a sine qua non for appointment, overspecialization and worsening staff-student ratios. And in between? Surprisingly, the RAE is on that list.



des 05.05.04 at 10:37 am

You get decent coffee over in Philosophy?!

Have you got any vacancies?


Barry 05.05.04 at 11:59 am

Chris, your link points back to Crooked Timber.


Barry 05.05.04 at 12:08 pm

Well, now it works. Huh.


Lindsay Beyerstein 05.05.04 at 5:58 pm

That’s a great article, thanks for linking.

The author notes that a PhD is now an essential qualification for an academic job, whereas candidates used to be able to get started with a BA. The academic training process is now so long that almost no one under 30 is qualified to enter the profession. These days, one can’t even be an adjunct without the better part of a PhD. The author argues that this is a problem for academia because young people are marginalized during what might be their most creative and productive years.

This article got me thinking about the connection between the aging academic population and the adjunct system. One of the problems with the current system is that tenured academics tend to look down on adjuncts. Many of the youngest members of the profession are adjuncts. The author implies that academics used to regard people at this level as colleagues, as opposed to hired help.

Maybe part of the solution is cultural change within academia. We have only limited control over budgets and salaries. But we can scrutinize our own attitudes. Economics has made adjuncthood a natural part of the academic life cycle. We should see it as such, rather than as evidence of failure. If we can’t shorten the educational process, or create more tenure-track jobs for young academics, the least we can do is make some effort to nurture the talent that is now stagnating.


failedstudent 05.05.04 at 10:50 pm

John Sutherland glossed over the emancipation through education of a huge section of British society. Now nearly 50% of young people go to university, instead of 10%, and it might be the case that the standards have dropped, that poor students are tolerated, and morale is poor.

However, there are so many people today who can say that they went to university when their family would not have thought it possible. “I was the first person in my family to go to university” is a common and heart-warming phrase.

It is an assistance to eroding unjustness in the stratification of society, egalitarian and pro-community, making many British people feel proud of themselves.


John Quiggin 05.06.04 at 1:42 am

On the RAE, I’d rank it (from the perspective of an outside observer) as a conditional plus.

That is, given that there was no prospect that universities would continue to be able to do research with no accounting for outcomes, the RAE is better than exclusive reliance on the other possible models which are
(a) tying everything to individual success in getting research grants, as in Australia
(b) picking winners at the institution level


Michael Otsuka 05.06.04 at 9:15 am

Sutherland mentions the intrusively centralized control of higher education in the UK as among the negatives and lists the AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) as one of the culprits. Many naively thought the establishment of the AHRB in 1998 would be a good thing for the arts and humanities. But Oxford had the foresight and good sense back then to register ‘concern about dirigisme and state control’. Oxford correctly noted that the AHRB would simply take control of money for the arts and humanities that once went directly to universities and force academics to jump through hoops and conform to the government’s latest agenda to get this money back. Even the higher education minister at the time warned that such an organization might give rise to huge administrative burdens. These fears have been amply confirmed, as the main difference the AHRB has made to the arts and humanities is as follows:

In order to keep their departments and their PhD students financially afloat, academics are now forced to spend increasing amounts of time filling in numbingly bureaucratic forms to bid and account for various small pots of money which once went directly to universities. Eligibility for such funds is tied to the completion of mindless tasks imposed by ministers and bureaucrats who have no clue about the arts and humanities: e.g., the submission of Orwellian forms documenting the ‘delivery and monitoring’ of the ‘training’ we provide our PhD students to ensure that they acquire ‘core, generic and personal and career development skills’ having to do with things such as ‘record-keeping and record management’, ‘designing and managing a project’, and ‘contextualising practice-based research’ (whatever in the world that might be).

See Chris’s earlier post on ‘How government is wrecking British universities’ for more:



Michael Otsuka 05.06.04 at 9:51 am

Correction to my post above: Unlike other money which the AHRB now controls, money for the funding of PhD students didn’t go directly to universities prior to the creation of the AHRB. Nevertheless the AHRB has made the process of applying for such funding much more bureaucratic and time-consuming. There is, I’m quite certain, no other organization on the planet (not even Britain’s other research councils) which requires the submission of so much paperwork as a precondition of awarding a single scholarship.


Zizka 05.06.04 at 8:34 pm

I have a nit pick from my limited point of view. Editing at Oxford and Cambridge U. Presses has gone way downhill.

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