The real causes of academic staff problems

According to a report in this morning’s Australian,

AUSTRALIA’S academics are disillusioned by corporate management cultures at universities, threatening to drive many away from the profession and worsen a looming staff shortage as thousands of them approach retirement.

According to the survey on which the story is based (which I presume will appear here) 28% of Australian academics have taken concrete action to change jobs to an industry other than higher education.

What we don’t know is how many succeed. My calculations based on the ABS labour mobility survey suggest that education (which includes schools and vocational education) in 2007-08 had the lowest annual rate of labour loss of any Australian industry, coming fractionally below health on 3.5%.

While I doubt that corporate (sic) management culture has much to do with exit – since for all their complaints academics have less management direction than any industry I can think of – higher education is poorly placed to deal with its personnel issues.

It is highly likely that student numbers will continue to grow more rapidly than research dollars. With current practices, this means that casual staff will probably increase in number. Effectively, universities only teach for half the year so it is not economic to appoint teaching-only full-time staff, and in any case the union is against it. So if there is no money for additional research, casuals are the best solution for teaching the additional students.

This is in nobody’s interests – casual staff have no employment certainty, the universities have little staff continuity (leading to an ageing permanent workforce), and the students suffer from uncommitted and underprepared staff. But it is hard to avoid given the current semester system and the financial imbalance.

This situation highlights again the mistake the government is making in restricting the demand-driven system to the existing public universities, all of which claim (with varying degrees of plausibility) to be research universities.

It would make far more sense to open the system to teaching-only or teaching-dominant insititutions which could teach all year, offering teaching staff full-time jobs and letting students finish more quickly.

Commenter Conrad argues that it would be hard to recruit for these positions because academics want to research. The low by international standards preference for teaching reported by Australian academics in the survey supports his argument. However, the much higher preference for teaching reported by US academics shows that there is nothing inevitable about this preference. They have maintained a tradition of teaching-focused institutions, while the insistence on PhDs and research here has screened out people who would like to be career higher education teachers.

The staffing problem in higher education isn’t due to management style. It is due to fundamental flaws in industry structure.

20 thoughts on “The real causes of academic staff problems

  1. I’m an academic in the IT discipline and actually they’re are plenty of people in the industry who would be fantastic teachers with great industry experience who would be happy to move into a university teaching role. I’ve two friends who would be keen to do it, but don’t particularly want to do a PhD and definitely can’t afford to spend three years doing a PhD on at best scholarship money. So I have to agree that the research obsession in universities is a major problem.

    On the other hand, Deakin has gone to the continuous teaching model with trimesters, and guess who is the most against it? the students on the whole aren’t happy with it, especially the international students, who liked having that end of year break. So, that’s a problem too.


  2. You don’t suggest how or where to include the bit that falls between research and teaching, namely “scholarship”, or the mastery of the established body of learning. Teaching-only academics will still need “leisure” time and regular interactions with their “research” colleagues in which to assimilate the latest findings in their fields — which means sabbaticals from teaching.


  3. You have summed it up well. You may have noticed I have a lot of time for the Dawkin Universities, but I really think they need to get over this research thingy.


  4. People who are really interested in scholarship will find time for it without needing long holidays and sabbaticals. It is no longer necessary to travel to get contact with overseas scholars and library resources, unless the research is very esoteric, for example on original ms in a Paris museum (like the Professor of French from SU who I met on a plane to Istanbul).


  5. Alan – I don’t fully buy the time-for-scholarship argument. Professionals in every other field manage to stay on top of the relevant knowledge without routinely being given months off from their regular duties. Colleges would need to build time into the work year for scholarship, but this could be by adjusting teaching loads or by having other breaks from teaching as deemed necessary.

    Martin – There would not be a requirement for students to go straight through, any more than there is now. Given the Australian preference for summer holidays I imagine the term that goes over that period would have lighter enrolments than the others. But the overall economics strongly favour utilising the full year.


  6. A staff shortage with academics sounds odd.

    How many staff positions are there in Australia that require a PhD? How many PhDs are handed out each year in Australia? While at some stage there may be a retirement bulge surely there are far more people with PhDs than there are teaching jobs. Th e proportion of these peope who want to teach may be hard to discern but surely it isn’t that low.

    In University admin there are lots of people with PhDs for starters that could teach and may even want to but find that the roles are hard to get.


  7. Of course, the difference in the US model is that all colleges are not created equal. There are two-year colleges, four year colleges, masters-granting colleges, and full PhD granting universities that do research and churn out PhDs. My guess is that US academics at research universities are just as averse to teaching (if not more).

    Here in Nevada, the community college (TAFE) teachers have 15 contact hours a week, the four year college staff have 12 contact hours a week, and the university staff have 9 contact hours a week. Even in the university, the lecturers will teach 12 hours a week while the research professors will teach 6 hours a week.

    The 15/12/9 model is legislated by the state and we must report any deviation from these contact hours every semester (whether for research or administrative release).

    So, one way to increase productivity may be to accept that all universities are not created equal (i.e. reverse the Dawkins process).


  8. In Nevada there are sabbaticals available for research and “faculty development”. The state limits faculty on sabbatical to no more than a small (1-2%) of the workforce. In Texas there were no sabbaticals. Fifty states = fifty variations (a nice natural experiment).

    Faculty have the option of working in the summer for extra compensation or taking the summer off (most faculty contracts are for two semesters). There are often some research grants available over the summer (at the university at least).

    Just my $0.02 worth


  9. Actually Andrew, after returning from France this year (where university staff do more teaching than here), I’m getting even less inclined to believe that having large numbers of teaching universities is generally a good thing.
    First (and my typical complaint) is that you already couldn’t fill many areas with staff if not for Iran, India and China (I’m personally not fussed at that, but they certainly could run out). If you can find me teaching academics that want to teach, say, engineering and many science subjects, then good luck.
    Second, you get almost no research development amongst younger staff. This means you end up with a degenerative system with no smart research academics at a higher level. I was surprised that last time I was in France, some of the full professor positions where I was working simply could not be filled, and this is in an area where there isn’t strong industry competition like engineering, and with a population more averse to working in the private sector than Australia.
    Third, Australia isn’t the US. The abundance of teaching universities in the US (and a shoddy school system in many places) means that the only reason they have enough of many types of professions (generally most of the things not taught in teaching only colleges) is because of foreigners coming from overseas who actually learnt something in their degrees. At the moment, for example, Chinese nationals get more PhDs in the US than US nationals (obviously that’s an extreme example).
    Fourth, it seems to me the most likely outcome is that there will be a split model within not across universities. However, the split model will be caused not by people learning a whole lot more, but caused by people studying longer. The Melbourne model is a good example of this — My bet is employers will like those graduates more than the 3 year degree ones (which shouldn’t be surprising, since they will have done 2 years more study). Once this becomes well known, it will force other universities to do the same, since students will of course want places with the best outcomes. Some of the courses taught at the new undergraduate level will be transferred to teaching only staff, especially those that don’t require many technical skills but are supposed to give students broader knowledge (whatever that means). It’s not clear to me this is of great positive benefit overall to anyone except the university sector.


  10. Conrad – Well obviously if they are impossible to staff the model won’t work in those cases. But across the vocational degrees that I expect teaching-only institutions would focus on there are already plenty of professionals with the knowledge required (some of whom have PhDs; as in the US they would likely find time to do some research at teaching institutions if they wanted to).

    And let’s not forget that we already have thousands of academics who are researchers in job description only. If they are doing any research, they can’t get it published. If it’s not of publishable quality, it’s hard to see why taxpayers should pay for it to be done when there are more constructive things that could be done with the money.

    I’m not saying get rid of research unis – just saying that it does not make sense to drive system growth through them.

    BTW, be sceptical of claims of labour market shortages due to too few people with the relevant qualifications – given the policy of most Western governments to flood labour markets with credentialed workers this is pretty rare. The academic literature on this is a useful counter-balance to the claims of business groups. The problem is usually not attracting enough of the qualified people into the relevant labour markets or temporary cyclical factors.


  11. “Well obviously if they are impossible to staff the model won’t work in those cases.”
    You need to say how common this will become — my bet is very (engineering, most sciences, mathematics, business — indeed almost anything with alternative careers to universities that pay more). That’s why I don’t think teaching only universities will make much difference here (even if they could be started easily) — the number of things they can teach is limited if they want to reach a reasonable standard. It’s also the case that unless they can get government subsidies, many things are simply too expensive to teach. Thus, the only way we’ll get them is if some current universities downgrade themselves, which seems unlikely (indeed, universities already can teach all year round if they want — where I work, for example, some courses are done like that already).
    As for vocational stuff, we already have that in the TAFE system.
    “I’m not saying get rid of research unis – just saying that it does not make sense to drive system growth through them”
    It makes sense because (1) OS students want to go to “high-class” universities — and that will be especially important if the visa scheme change; (2) post-graduates want to go to “high-class” universities too; and (3) research brings in philanthropic funds and attracts other external funds also.
    So, whilst I’m happy to admit it’s a market failure based often on incorrect student perception (“my undergraduate degree will be better because they do a lot of research at the university I go to”), it makes a huge amount of sense for universities to do research, and so no-one is going to give it up.
    “BTW, be sceptical of claims of labour market shortages due to too few people with the relevant qualifications”
    I am — I’m also aware that, in terms of this article, people have been offering doomsday scenarios about staff leaving the sector for decades. As long as China, Iran, and India keep exporting large numbers of well educated smart people, and as long as we don’t end up with xenophobic immigration laws, it won’t be a fuss. No doubt that’s true of other sectors also.


  12. University Teaching during summer used not to be possible because the buildings were not air conditioned. That is less of am issue now than before. University teaching could be done on a 3×12 week term but with students only required to take classes in 2 of the three terms and no research academic required to teach more than two terms. Teaching only academics could teach all three.

    Rafe, not all knowledge is gettable on the Internet. Historians need to go to archives, anthropologists and archeologists have to be on site some of the time, physicists want to be a certain labs, etc. But the real benefit of sabbaticals is interacting with differerent people, face to face, who are in your field.


  13. Admittedly on much smaller absolute numbers than today, the low to medium brand name unis did well in the overseas student market before the visa changes – interesting evidence of price competition.

    I don’t need to say how common it will be for the teaching model not to work, because it cannot be said with any precision. What I am saying is that if anti-competitive funding biases against teaching only institutions are removed, along with some other barriers to entry (including against foreign providers), I predict growth in the teaching-only market, which will be able to offer quicker more student-friendly courses and full-time permanent teaching jobs to professionals seeking career change and the casuals locked out of work in the research unis.

    The US – and Australia until 20 years ago – shows that it is possible.


  14. I haven’t analysed the 2008 private provider enrolment data yet, but just adding an income-contingent loan without tuition susbidy from 2005 triggered huge enrolment growth rates -indicating latent demand for alternatives to the public universities.


  15. Andrew, I agree with you about the need for teaching only universities. I spent some time teaching causally and would have liked to have made a career of it. I realised I would need to get the ‘union ticket’ aka PhD. Unfortunately in economics that requires jumping through a lot of arcane mathematical hoops to end up saying nothing very interesting. So I headed of to the public service.

    On another matter, it is interesting and scary that the university sector, a sector that should contain our best and brightest, can blame some as vague and undefinable as ‘corporate management cultures’ and can’t see something as obvious as the failure of central planning.


  16. “On another matter, it is interesting and scary that the university sector, a sector that should contain our best and brightest, can blame some as vague and undefinable as ‘corporate management cultures’ and can’t see something as obvious as the failure of central planning”
    The reason for that is obvious. You have lots of hard-left people that think universities should be subject to strong central planning, but that the planning should include funds that make doing a decent job of teaching local students worthwhile. Thus they think central planning should be fixed rather than dispensed with (of course, they’d still complain about the mountain of useless red tape handed to them by the government and the bureaucrats employ to deal with it too, even if it was). You have decent universities in some countries where this happens, so it isn’t impossible, and that’s their ideal system.
    I think the reason management gets blamed so often is that poor management afflicts almost every university I know in Australia (I don’t know any that arn’t hopelessly over micromanaged) and is just something in people’s faces every day. It therefore becomes the obvious first thing to blame (it’s just an availability bias — Kahneman would be pleased). No doubt if you wanted to run universities well, you would probably want to fix both of those things. It’s also hard to see how you can actually manage universities in Australia well with all the government’s crazy rules, and I think this is ignored. That’s not to say that the management of many places would do an awful job even if there wern’t crazy rules (as can be seen by all the crazy loss making ventures many have made).


  17. The governance and mangagement of universities is very unusual in several respects.

    1. There are multiple conflicting organisational goals and no clear principles for choosing between them.
    2. The members of the governing body have much less onerous obligations than company directors.
    3. Very few CEOs (ie VCs) have management experience outside universities or formal management qualifications. This is also true right down the management hierarchy through deans and departmental heads.
    4. VCs and other managers have much less formal power than CEOs, and must exercise their informal power in a context of traditions of individual academic autonomy.
    5. VCs must be skilled in managing highly competitive markets and highly bureaucratic government funding.

    Arguably university managers have done a reasonable job in the circumstances – only a few unis have hit really dire trouble, and who would have believed 20 years ago that they could create a massive export industry (even if it is not quite as big as the ABS claims)?

    But another advantage of opening the system is creating institutions with fewer objectives and better, more business-like, management systems.


  18. Very few CEOs (ie VCs) have management experience outside universities or formal management qualifications. This is also true right down the management hierarchy through deans and departmental heads.

    This isn’t such a bad thing. I used to be of the view that non-academics could (and should) manage universities, but two high level appointments at my institution have cured me of that view.


  19. Wait a sec. Academics are going to leave the university system because the management is too “corporate”. Where do they think they are going to go? Government jobs?

    No one likes the management system where they work.

    I get the impression that academics are kind of like artists (classical musicians, actors, painters, etc…) who think that society should pay for them to pursue their interests because it is more worthwhile than other peoples. There is a tendency to have a sense of entitlement that their research is worth funding because its interesting/advances our society. However if they make a discovery that can be cashed in for lots of dollars they are quite happy to claim most of the money as their right (even if they have enjoyed years of public support). That reminds me of athletes funded by the AIS.


  20. In fairness, the ‘corporate’ bit was an embellishment from the report’s authors. The actual survey took satisfaction with institutional management from a composite of questions relating to management issues.

    “Composite scale includes responses to these items: ‘How influential are you, personally, in helping to shape key academic policies?’ ‘…at the level of the department’, ‘…at the level of the faculty, school or similar unit’, at the institutional level’, ‘Top-level administrators are providing competent
    leadership’, ‘I am kept informed about what is going on at this institution’, ‘Lack of faculty involvement is a real problem’ (reverse coded), ‘Students should have a stronger voice in determining policy that affects them’ (reverse coded),
    and ‘The administration supports academic freedom’.’


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