Student expectations and the Salary Problem in Academia.

I’m breaking out of self-enforced blogging jail, to have a minor rant.

I settled down with the Guardian this morning (incidentally, on a break from applying for a teaching fellowship), and saw the following article. ‘Less than half’ of tuition fees spent on teaching English universitiesreads the headline. I mainly clicked on it out of puzzlement. This is news? Then I read that, apparently, it really is news to some people. Worse, it’s all our fault. ‘Universities need to be more honest with students about how their fees are spent,’ hectors ‘an influential thinktank’ (how do thinktanks sort out their finances, and can we all have a quick tour of the budgeting department, please?).

Apparently – and you’d imagine, from the way this is presented, that it’s a shocking denouement – universities spend as much as 55 to 60% of their budget on libraries and services including information technology and student support.

The bastards.

Imagine, choosing to find a library. Cos who needs books, or subscriptions to journals, right?

Granted, the article does eventually wind its way around to the question of academics’ pay, and makes the important point that the system is rigged, with black men and women earning far less than their white counterparts. Which is pretty disgusting. But it makes its way to that conclusion by way of some fairly insinuating chains of logic. Apparently, students would prefer if their money weren’t spent on advertising. Ok, fair point … but if it’s true that the majority of money is spent on library costs and teaching, um, possibly not as big an issue as you’d imagine? And what counts as ‘advertising’? One of the problems universities routinely raise is that student demographics don’t change without changes to applicant demographics – you can’t admit someone who doesn’t apply. So, perhaps you need to advertise, and campaign?

I am probably responding more to the tone of this article than to its content. There’s nothing particularly wrong with students (or academics) being more aware of how money is spent. I do routinely despair when students assume their supervisors are coining it. I’ve never topped the moment when, during my PhD days when I was doing hourly teaching, one of my less numerate students managed to suggest those teaching him were earning ‘9k a year from each of us’ since those were his fees. Oh, I wish.

The problem is, I have a certain amount of cynicism about how this information would be interpreted, were it available. I believe that university teaching ought to be better paid. I would believe that – I’ve never met an early career academic who doesn’t feel slightly brutalised by temporary teaching contracts that don’t include time to mark essays and plan lessons, or adverts for jobs that require ‘research-led teaching’ but decline to pay you over the summer (when you’d do the research). But if pay is one problem, prestige is just as much of an issue.

Universities run on early career academics as teachers, from PhD students onwards. But the popular perception of a university teacher is of a middle-aged (and probably male, and white …) academic, who has his own office, his established courses, and his books reassuringly lined up on the shelf. I know from complaints I’ve heard from students (and more from parents of students) that getting an early career academic, let alone a PhD student, as a teacher or supervisor is seen as being short-changed. Why isn’t the professor teaching the course? Why is the university cheating students by giving them some wet-behind-the-ears newbie who’s yet to publish her first book? There’s a feeling that what’s taught ought to be well established. A friend of friend, getting in touch to ask about her son’s applications a couple of years ago, is representative (and won’t now mind me writing this). She was concerned, she said, because she’d been to an Open Day and the sample lecture had included references to an article that wasn’t yet published. It was someone trying to get away with unfinished work, in her view. I didn’t (and still don’t) know which university this was, or who the lecturer giving the sample lecture was, but I know she was a she, and she was ‘quite young’. I explained then that you actually want people lecturing their unfinished work – it’s in the nature of a sneak preview. As a student, part of what you’re doing is testing out ideas, and when the person teaching you is testing out ideas too, you’re both engaged in the same process of moving backwards and forwards on something, taking some wrong turns, trying to fit things together differently. You should come out of a lecture feeling you know – or you have a hunch – where the lecturer isn’t quite sure about his or her ideas yet, where there’s a bit further to push at things.

This sort of uncertainty doesn’t fit well with what prospective students are taught to imagine university academics are like. And the problem is, I don’t think more transparency about pay will help. It implies that, if I’m paid 28k per year as a newly-graduated teaching associate, my teaching is worth less than someone who’s paid 35k as a lecturer, or 47k as an associate professor. And thing is, it really isn’t. That’s not me being arrogant – because if my teaching truly were worth so much less, it would be incredibly obvious which students had been shortchanged, because their results would skew much lower than those of their more fortunate peers, assigned to permanent members of staff.

Yes, students (and the rest of us) ought to know more about where the money is going. But they shouldn’t be fobbed off with headlines that make out funding a library is a shocking expense for a university to have. We need to give students and their parents a more accurate picture of what to expect from university, right from the start, before applications even happen. That involves changing the idea that university teaching is all about certainty and established truths, best delivered by middle-aged white men reading sonorously from dusty tomes they published in the last millennium. Change that, and maybe we’d have a hope of getting better pay for those of us who aren’t middle aged white men, too.

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3 thoughts on “Student expectations and the Salary Problem in Academia.

    • A lot of the students I’ve taught do want to be taught to think – or even come to university wanting to be challenged and made to think. But the big problem is that they face such challenges even to do that. They are constantly told that university is all about ticking boxes and saying the right thing at interview. And it’s so frustrating!

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