Academia and the Public v Private Debate

Tonight I had a civilised exchange of views on Twitter with economist and broadcaster, Marc Coleman. He had been raising the issue of academic salaries, suggesting essentially that we are overpaid.

Although I don’t agree with him, I have to say that I feel a little conflicted on this because, like many people, I have family who are self-employed (not the same as ‘working in the private sector’) and I think I understand the difference between working for your very financial survival and working for you own self esteem and ambition. I would much rather the latter than the former.

If you are a permanent member of academic staff, I think it is fair to say that the pressures on you are not comparable to those faced by the self-employed person who has to constantly hustle for work and the next pay cheque. I think we all would agree with that. And, working in academia – as a permanent employee – is a huge privilege. You get to do something really challenging and worthwhile and you get to do it to do it in a way that is very much on your own terms.

But that is not to say that there are no pressures. Let’s for the moment forget about all the academics who are employed on short term contacts these days and just focus on those who are in permanent positions. Are they working in a completely pressure-free environment? Do they have an easy life and are they grossly overpaid?

The first thing I would say is that I have always worked in a science faculty so I have no experience of the humanities or business where, I suspect, the working environment is slightly different. But a couple of things you have to remember about academics is the following: they have a very high level of intrinsic motivation and many also suffer from ‘best boy (or girl) in the class’ syndrome. Therefore, at least in my experience, they tend to work hard out of a sort of innate compulsion to do so – to be the best ‘in the class’ in effect.

In the laboratory sciences at least, reaching the ‘top’ means raising huge amounts of money to fund equipment and the salaries of postgraduate students and post doctoral researchers. This is a grueling process and is on top of teaching duties which are not necessarily stressful but which are important and time consuming. The academic who wants to progress in his or her career has to buy into this process – fundraising, graduating PhD students and publishing papers. Furthermore, there is increasing pressure to make ones research relevant to industry and to contribute to the innovation and job creation mission of most institutions.

Now, one can, of course, opt out, step off the treadmill and coast (some do), and in that sense academia is very different from the world of the self employed where no such option exists. So I have every sympathy for the self employed and fully recognise that they are under pressures that are far in excess of those of academics.

Nevertheless, and this may be a reflection of the academic mindset and the limited ability of your average academic to deal with pressure, I see stressed-out academics all around me. One of the main sources of pressure is the problem of keeping the ‘show on the road’. Academic generally take their responsibilities to their postgrads and their postdocs very seriously and many a sleepless night is spent worrying about where the next bunch of money is going to come – effectively to keep people in employment. It is pressures like this that stress academics far more than workload. It is in that sense that I have compared running a large research group to running an SME.

I think that a big problem in this whole debate is that many commentators have little or no experience of the sciences and engineering. I will stick my neck out and say that the pressures on the laboratory scientists exceed those of most other academics by a long way. (Hence I stick to mathematical stuff!) I think it is unfair to talk about academia as a homogenous entity and to take a bird’s eye view in which salaries that are averaged over the entire sector are compared with those in the private sector. A bit of digging is needed.

As a final note, there is no doubt in my mind that the way people are rewarded in academia is far from perfect. Promotion is often a reward for past achievement rather than reflecting an increase in responsibilities and I know many academics who simply refuse to take on duties that they should be obliged to take on. Saying ‘no’ is a bizarre aspect of the academic career that still baffles me.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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