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Talkin’ bout my generation: young academics on why so many eye uni exit

Younger academics and researchers need clear career paths, job security and to be freed from red tape, the report said. Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory

Nearly 40% of academics under 30 and one-third of staff aged 30-39 years plan to leave the Australian higher education sector within 10 years, according to a new report, raising the prospect of severe staff shortages as student numbers rise and baby boomer academics retire.

The report, produced by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, was based on 5,525 survey responses from academics, including sessional and casual staff, at 20 Australian universities.

Poor job security, a lack of research funding, low pay and endless red tape were the most commonly cited reasons among those considering moving to an overseas university or quitting the sector altogether, the report found.

“We had huge levels of satisfaction around the scholarly aspects of work and passion for their field of study but really low levels of satisfaction around workplace issues, particularly in younger academics,” said one of the report’s authors, University of Melbourne higher education lecturer Dr Emmaline Bexley.

Younger academics were also more likely to be employed on a casual basis and commonly reported feeling that teaching excellence was not valued highly enough.

“Everyone knows that the best thing to have on your resume is a really great funding track record, showing you can win big grants and that tends to be favoured above a strong teaching record,” she said.

An overwhelming number of respondents reported that much of their time was being taken up with bureaucratic reporting, grant-writing and red tape when a lot of this work could be done by professional staff, “allowing traditional academics to teach and research rather than spending so much time jumping through hoops,” said Dr Bexley.

The departure of younger generation academics will be keenly felt when baby boomer staff retire and student numbers rise after a cap on student numbers is lifted next year, she said.

Overall, few academics believe the higher education sector is heading in the right direction or that there is strong government support for the university sector, the report found.

Some good news

In a joint statement, Education Minister Chris Evans and Innovation Minister Kim Carr said the report also found that more academics are satisfied with their work – 57% in 2010, up from 51% in a comparable report released in 1999.

“Young academics will want take the opportunity to work overseas and advance their careers and research interests. That is undoubtedly a good thing, rather than a development which should be viewed as a threat,” the statement said.

However, the trend towards short term and casual employment remains a matter of concern for many academic staff, the ministers said.

“This is an issue to which university management will need to be attentive if they are to retain their best and brightest.”

The total Commonwealth investment in higher education is more than $12 billion, up from $8 billion in 2007, the statement said.

Litmus test

Glenn Withers, chief executive of the peak body Universities Australia, said recent improvements in government support had followed almost 15 years of funding restrictions and regulation increases.

“The remaining crucial litmus tests are the forthcoming Knight Review report on student visas and the Base Funding Review report. If government’s response to these is supportive and far-sighted then there may be cause for some optimism that long-run settings are indeed in place for a better future, and more academics can properly plan their careers and get on with the business of the work that drives them,” he said.

“In the meantime we are in danger of losing too many of our best and brightest, and that is not good.”

The Conversation asked some early career academics for their perspectives on the issues raised in the report.

Dr Wendy Davis, Lecturer in Preparatory Studies at Central Queensland University

I am 37 and am fortunate enough to have a permanent lecturing position. However, my paid work is in a university preparatory program, which is not in the discipline in which I gained my PhD. My research sits in the humanities/cultural studies discipline specifically focused on television.

If I had chosen to try and follow that career path to permanency, I believe it would have been extremely difficult in Australia as during the last decade the humanities generally have not been a priority in terms of courses, programs or research and permanent positions are few and far between as well as being intensely competitive.

My current position technically allows for .2 research allocation in my workload; however, it is extremely difficult to turn that into a reality. With this in mind, I was fortunate enough to be awarded an Early Career Research Fellowship by my employing institution, which seconded me to a research centre for .4 of my workload.

Even so, balancing this with my remaining teaching and administration load has been challenging and not always successful. As that research fellowship draws to a close, I have begun to consider my options.

Recently, I have also begun to look at expanding my skill base by beginning a Masters in IT (Library and Information Sciences) as it is sometimes difficult to feel confident about the tertiary sector in terms of the opportunities it may offer me to grow as an academic in the future, particularly with the tendency to move towards a vocational focus in higher education.

Dr Jonathan Carroll, Post Doctoral Research Associate, Centre for the Subatomic Structure of Matter at University of Adelaide

I took part in that survey as a ‘younger academic’ (I’ll be 28 in October). My primary role is as a researcher in theoretical physics, though I have some limited experience in undergraduate teaching and HDR supervision.

I can really only comment from the perspective of the physical sciences, but the source of job security dissatisfaction among young researchers is likely due to the limited time-frame of a research contract - typically two or three years for a post-doc position.

The intent is that post-docs move around and get experience from lots of different research groups, but since those are very limited in Australia (there is very little overlap between research groups, so the chances that another group shares your research interests is low) that means looking overseas for the next post-doc position. Longer-term positions tend to require experience in two or three post-doc positions, are globally sourced, and are highly competitive.

Teaching positions generally require experience, which should be obtained part-time during a research position, but the opportunities for this are slim and require a lot of red-tape.

If one doesn’t wish to leave Australia, but cannot obtain a research or teaching position in a university, then leaving the sector is the remaining option.

What doesn’t seem to be taken into account in the reporting on that survey is the likelihood of returning to Australia later in one’s career - there are fellowships set up for this purpose, and it’s quite common. Also missing in the reporting is that many of those leaving Australia will do so at the completion of their fixed-term contract voluntarily, seeking their next competitive position at a different university (as opposed to ‘giving up on Australia’ mid-contract as the reporting might imply).

Lastly, the spaces opened up by Australian researchers completing fixed-term positions are filled by overseas counterparts in the same circumstances. In a lot of cases it’s not as simple as ‘Australian researchers abandoning the sector’, it’s Australia having a broad interaction with the global research community.

If the retention of young researchers is a goal, then broadening the research capabilities of Australian Universities is essential. At the moment, administrative pressure on researchers and the proportion of academics to administrators are both major roadblocks to this goal.

Tim Dean, Philosopher, PhD student at University of New South Wales

I am 35. Job security is the Sword of Damocles hanging over many young academics’ heads. Many people enter academia through a passion for the subject matter, but the fact is there are far fewer jobs available than graduates to fill them, particularly in philosophy. Institutions exploit this passion, often offering lower rates of pay, higher workloads and less job security than found in the private sector.

Many of those who do get sessional teaching jobs or a post-doc somewhere are far from guaranteed to score a more solid posting afterwards. I know academics who have taken on post-docs in research areas outside their core interest and expertise simply because there’s a flicker of hope for funding in that field. And others who have taken research/teaching roles where they haven’t the time or resources to do either one well, and they suffer accordingly. Many are just awaiting the retirement of venerable professors that will free up more positions for younger academics, but there are some institutions that aren’t replacing all departing staff.

It’s not uncommon for recent graduates to spend a year or more between academic jobs, forcing them to take on ad hoc work to pay the bills in the interim, with no guarantee a firm job is even forthcoming. It can easily become disheartening. The end result is a lot of smart and capable people throw in the towel and either head overseas or leave their academic aspirations behind and enter the private sector.

Academia is structured in a somewhat bizarre way. It’s driven by the “publish or perish” ethos that values research output above all other performance metrics. Yet researchers are also often required to teach. Many love to teach. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that many academics will see teaching as a distraction to furthering their research career. Teaching often gets foisted on grad students and recent graduates, making it difficult for them to do research themselves and make a mark, particularly during their more energetic years.

And some academics are simply amazing teachers, but their career prospects aren’t as good as they are for a decent researcher.

University bureaucracy is stupefying. While universities have advanced in many ways since Oxford was founded, I don’t think the bureaucracy has been streamlined much since then. Add to that the paperwork involved in applying for grants - the lifeblood of research - and academics spend a lot of time doing things other than researching or teaching.

Dr Peter Macreadie, Chancellor’s Post Doctoral Research Fellow at University of Technology, Sydney

I am 29. I think times are definitely tough for young researchers moving into academia. The ARC estimated it would offer around 200 DECRAs (Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards) this round (up from 120 under the APD scheme), and yet the word on the street is that there were more than 3000 applications. Unless the number of DECRAs on offer increases, then the early career researcher fellowship success rate will halve to around 7%.

Nowadays you have to be a superfreak (in terms of pumping out papers, shaking the money tree) and a polymath to stay in the game without worrying about where your next pay cheque will come from. The irony of all this is that we’re pushing more PhD students through the system than ever before. It’s not to say these people don’t go on to get jobs, the question is: did they get the job they had hoped for?

Personally, I don’t see the grass being any greener on the other side. UTS has invested in me and I’m not currently looking over the fence into other pastures.

Kirrily Jordan, Research Fellow at Australian National University

I am 34 and classified as an ‘early career academic’. The report’s findings match well with what I hear from university colleagues all the time.

Most academics I know are working on short-term contracts with very little job security - and not only those early in their careers.

Applying for grant funding to try and retain your job takes a huge amount of time and energy, it’s intensely competitive and, in the end, we’re all competing for what is actually very little money and relatively low wages when compared to what we could get in the private sector or public service.

The irony is that most academics are in the job because they’re passionate and highly committed to their work, but the constant pressure to bring in grant money and meet externally imposed performance requirements actually detracts from the ability to do the job well.

Sadly, the funding model does see experienced, talented and highly educated academics leaving the sector every year.

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