Which academics are happy?


Academics everywhere are under increasing pressure to improve their performance and that of their institution, often by undertaking tasks that respond directly to new forms of measurement and management within the sector.

League tables now exist for every imaginable university degree, region and specialism and the plethora of tables continue to grow.

Over the last eight years, since I started working closely with academics, the number of metrics has only continued to expand, prompting the question from an academic I know well: “Which academics are actually happy in English higher education today?”

The question took me by surprise. I had never been asked this question so directly before.

This academic had recently taken the plunge and resigned from her academic role in England and taken up opportunities in South-East Asia. Part of the driver for this was unhappiness with the English higher education sector, including heavy (and often unrealistic) teaching loads, burdensome administration and a lack of support from senior management, coupled with the introduction of more metrics into the everyday life of academics. These include the Research Excellence Framework (REF), Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the associated National Student Survey (NSS). And, of course, there is the newly emerging Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), as well as a reduction in student fees potentially on the horizon to complicate the policy and organisational landscape further.

It is a pretty exhausting mix for anyone, and that’s just thinking about it, let alone doing any of this. How, for example, do people manage to do research – that key underpinning platform of universities?

In my work at Cloud Chamber, I have been lucky to work with academics across a range of institutions, mainly but not exclusively in England. I am talking in this post about academic staff with some security in their roles.

At a quick count, I’ve worked directly with or had contact with more than 200 academics in over 35 institutions. The focus of this work has been in research development and evaluation. As such, the majority of academics we work with are active researchers or are interested in conducting research. They all keenly look at the different impacts on academic life. All of this experience and contact with a range of academics across such vast and varied institutions does highlight some consistent themes to that question of happiness.

Perhaps it is easier to define who is unhappy and why that is the case? In my experience, those who have become jaded, are looking for a way out, need a change or need to recharge their batteries are doing more administrative and management tasks than they would like. Often, this merges into teaching as well although I think most academics do enjoy the act of teaching; it tends to be the administrative burden and sometimes excessive class sizes and associated marking commitments that wear people down.

The continued growth of metrics and measurement through initiatives like the REF, TEF, and the NSS, make an impact on academics, especially as the schemes sit uncomfortably in the background as they go about their daily teaching and research activities. But it can be more than that. For those with specific responsibilities to promote, implement or measure the results of these initiatives, the burden can be very high, cutting deeply into cherished research, teaching or even free time. This has only got worse in the last eight years, and I expect that this impact is mirrored globally.

However, it isn’t simply about these initiatives. Time and energy-sapping burdens can come from more traditional academic roles that may include director or deputy director roles for studies, sitting on departmental committees and leading teaching and learning roles. The rotation of these roles among academics is standard practice, but it can be easy for many years to have slipped by and for academics to find themselves continuing in these roles. These are demanding positions and continuing them for too long can lead to burn-out. The growth in metrics over the last eight years has only compounded the problem, in my experience, with more and more academics feeling jaded and looking for a way out.

So, what does all this administration, measurement and committee working prevent academics from doing? The short answer is research.

Research is normally the first thing to fall by the wayside as universities focus more and more on student satisfaction while failing to see the clear link between good research and quality teaching. Research is what often fires an academic up. It is something that they want to talk about, even if only remembering the research they used to do, perhaps their PhD or early career research.

The academics who are happiest in their work may do some teaching (many enjoy the teaching) but, most importantly, they have the time to do research, explore the questions that mean the most to them, and to feel like they are making a real difference.

If your research fires you up, then make sure you protect your research time as much as you possibly can. That would be my number one piece of advice to academics in higher education today. Fight for it and don’t be afraid to say no to people if they want to eat into your research time. Nobody will protect it for you.

Protecting this time isn’t always easy but academia, like any career, can be long and challenging so protecting the things you enjoy, your passions and interests are crucial to avoiding burn-out and ensuring an enjoyable and rewarding career.

Author Bio: Lachlan Smith is Co-Director of Cloud Chamber. He supports small and specialist institutions to develop their research culture, environment and income through strategy development and one to one research proposal support for academics.