higher ed

Myths of academia

BW Castle
(Typical academic house)

The Guardian runs a series called Academics Anonymous, in which an anonymous contributor writes about some aspect of academic life. It is occasionally enlightening, but has recently descended into clickbait style deliberate controversy. However, what I think some of the recent articles illustrate are commonly held misconceptions about academic life. They are so far off the mark in the current climate, that I suspect they were not written by academics at all, and are rather “bloke in the pub who went to the ‘University of Life’ anonymous”. But it’s worth looking at some of them just as a means of combatting some of the outdated perceptions of academia, as these represent images we need to overcome in the anti-knowledge environment.

Unsackable staff block promotion of younger staff – the article wasn’t as bad as the headline here, but the core idea that there is such a thing as ‘unsackable’ staff in universities anymore is at least 20 years out of date. The idea that once you gained tenure you could spend the rest of your career smoking pipes and looking sagely out of windows across the quadrant is probably only true if Jeremy Irons is depicting you in a movie. Tenure doesn’t exist, everyone is one slightly underperforming year away from getting the boot, and the pressures to bring in external money, deliver strategic aims, and get REF standing is more intense for those with tenure than others. So, myth 1 is that there is some tenure Camelot which once attained is an easy, secure life.

The second article was the one on academics using tax payer money to gain consultancy. While contacts with industry are encouraged, and most universities have an allowance for some consultancy work, the scenario proposed in this article was far removed from any reality most academics would recognise. It may be true in some Russell Group universities, but for the rest of us, workloads are tightly monitored and accounted for. That we would have the time to engage in the full time consultancy services while still delivering on all the other objectives, or be allowed to, is a fantasy. I also laughed out loud (if only there were an acronym for that) at the suggestion the university had paid £20K for room hire to allow for a self promotion exercise. In my university it is a major triumph if you manage to get biscuits and coffee for a meeting, so the idea of a senior manager glibly signing off 20K for room hire seems, well, fanciful. Myth 2 then is that academics workload is not tightly controlled.

The third article was one from last year, referring to the boozy life of the academic. In this they reported that every seminar started with free wine. What university is this (and do you need a Prof in Ed Tech)? I refer m’learned friend to the aforementioned battle for biscuits. Wine? After a PhD viva we usually open up a bottle of champagne. Which we buy. Now, academia can be a bit boozy, but in these days of longer working hours, more part time staff, longer commutes and general change in social mores, it is actually quite an abstemious profession (with the exception of conferences). When I was at uni in the 80s, a lecturer might go to the pub at lunchtime, and then we’d all sit in their tutorial room smoking roll-ups. This behaviour would have you on disciplinary action within a week now. Myth 3 then is that of the carefree, boozy academic life.

There are undoubtedly more, but when you piece these three together, what you get is a picture of an academic in the 1970s (Michael Caine in Educating Rita maybe) – shambolic, aloof, and unfettered by the concerns of normal working life. It’s a romantic image in a way, but also one that lends itself to the ‘ivory tower’ accusation. It is also about as representative now as the fearful matron in charge of a typing pool is to office life.


  • Charles Knight (@Charlesknight)

    I completely agree, it’s really gone down hill over the last year or so and that article was the sound of the barrel being scrapped – even the Guardian themselves seem to realise this as they closed the comments within hours.

    There is another myth that pretty much all of the articles there spread – that there is an academy – I don’t think it exists in anything but the most high level ways.

    you only have to read the comments BTL on those articles to see that behaviours that are seen as perfectly normal in one of the academies (say SS) would be seen as outrageous and get you sacked in another (science). Even the workloads and working cultures are so different between areas to make a lot of the conversation largely meaningless. Barriers to entry are completely different as well – it’s not uncommon for people with professional qualifications to enter on secure contracts at the top of scale while people in the hums might have two books and be scrapping together some hourly teaching.

  • John Kirriemuir

    There is possibly no better counter to the myth of unsackable “tenure” (cough) staff than the example of the Department of Information Science at Loughborough University, active in some form or other since shortly after WW2. Said department happily generated a lot of income for its staff and host institution from many sources over the decades (and more than a bit of that from Jisc).

    Then a few years ago, literally as they were moving into a shiny new purpose-built building, the top bods at the university sent a message along the lines of “Congratulations on top scoring in the latest REF. By the way, we are closing your entire department down and you need to move out of your new building quickly as it’s been reallocated. Thanks for everything.”

    {insert very sweary emoji here}

  • Victoria Silverwood

    I’m surprised that they have yet to write about the myth of term-time-only working.
    With increased marking loads, exam boards, admissions, open days, applicant visit days etc many academics don’t even get the opportunity to take their annual leave days, or if they do, resort to using them to conduct research and produce publications they have little time to do during the other 11 months of the year.

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