Calling it out

Many academics in their 50s might feel that they’re not ready to retire yet – but should they be forced out early? Well, of course, not all of them should.

Anonymous, ‘Should Older Academics Be Forced To Retire?‘,  The Thesis Whisperer

Bullshit. Is this really the world we choose to live in? Is this a system that works?

John Warner, ‘Calling BS … BS‘, Inside Higher Education

I’m a fan of The Thesis Whisperer (“just like the horse whisperer—but with more pages”), Inger Mewburn’s pathmaking PhD student support blog. It has a deservedly wide and international following, and it’s a model for other Australian group blogs, including the excellent Research Whisperer (“just like the Thesis Whisperer—but with more money”). For all these reasons TW hosts a serious critical conversation about Australian higher education, while also offering practical, encouraging advice for those who believe it’s not time to call bullshit on higher education.

So it says something about the state of things that TW’s anonymous contributor today dug up higher education’s zombie question: are unproductive older academics refusing to make way for the next generation? Unfortunately, couching this in sweeping generational terms scooped up those who are at least 15 years from retirement age, and ended up with this:

I can’t understand those over 50’s who hang on when they are clearly hating the way academia has changed.

They were lucky to live through an age when it was possible to have aspirations for an academic career and have a reasonable chance of fulfilling their dreams. And now they get a second bite at the cherry! They have great pension arrangements which means they have the opportunity to spend the next 20-30 years in relative comfort.

Early retirement might give some of these world weary academics a chance to discover who they are, apart from their academic identity. Imagine all that time, just enjoy being alive, healthy and prosperous? So few people in the world have that opportunity.

Touching as this is, it completely ignores weary academics with dependent families, or a backstory of contract employment and patchy superannuation contributions, or who just took out their first mortgage in their 50s. Is this really too hard to imagine? And the problem is that if you start like this, you end up with this kind of comment:

And we all know successful senior academics (again of any age, but let’s face it predominantly older than 40) who do nothing except the bare minimum they can get away with and resent any thing new and even seem to take pride in being techno-phobic.


Despite the fact that I should be reaching for my secateurs, I’m a specialist online educator, surrounded by academics of all ages who embrace, object to, experiment with and loathe technology—sometimes all on the same day. From close reading of global higher education literature, policy, reports, statistics and the endless blither coming at us from the tech sector, I don’t think it helps to reduce higher education’s problems to “we all know” and “let’s face it”.  It’s just not that simple.

The problems we are facing are structural, entrenched and worsening, and not the consequence of anyone’s underwork. So even if you know a senior academic sauntering to retirement, they’re not the reason there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and they’re not holding back anyone’s promotion. Resenting academics who have better superannuation or were hired at a different time is like resenting someone who bought a beach house before prices went up.

The twin problems corroding university work—for those that have it and those that want it—are underemployment and overwork. Just as in the northern hemisphere, Australian universities have discovered that the risk of market volatility can be moderated by the use of flexible, short-term seasonal hiring, and they’re using it to keep the business open. The only question that concerns them is how much casualisation an institution can bear before there’s some pushback on student satisfaction or quality assurance metrics.

So the rapid expansion of academic casualisation isn’t some kind of stalled wait line for the career escalator, that will resume its normal function once the bodies blocking it have been removed. It signals a more profound and unfixable market failure: like the US, Australia has failed to deliver on promises made to PhD students when they were enrolling. So anyone who’s pitching intergenerational change as a lure to PhD recruitment is selling a part-share in a unicorn. Academics in their early fifties are still picking up their kids from primary school.

This leaves the question of unproductive academics. Shouldn’t they be forced to give up their seat for someone who would appreciate it? This seems more reasonable, and even the defenders of the zimmer frame generation pause at this point. Why yes, productivity.

What if we had 360 degree feedback with academics – getting input from their students as to their performance? What if all academics had performance metrics and were accountable to their students to retain their positions? I think you would find that those academics who felt the pressure to actually perform, keep up with technology and be accountable would leave on their own accord.

Now we really have both feet in the quicksand.

First of all, academics are already measured, surveyed, evaluated and reported on. Research support and leave is already being withheld from anyone not measuring up. Institutions already have productivity management processes, and they are already being used. We don’t have tenure in Australia; academic jobs can be lost through performance management, and without fault through restructure and redundancy. If you don’t think your institution is moving fast enough to use these measures against your senior colleagues, go for it. But as John Warner asks in his terrific essay, is this really the workplace we choose to build? And do we trust that its instruments are true?

Productivity is a weak measure of contribution to the overall work of an academic institution because it focuses so narrowly on one part of the institutional portfolio, and measures by outputs. So it excludes all the collegial processes essential to the institution’s survival, including governance activities, professional service, mentoring, participating in networks, and professional development; and it overlooks the impact of structural change requiring more inputs for the same outcome. If you’re suddenly leading larger teaching teams, preparing more website content,  filling out more forms to meet internal and external QA requirements, keeping more complex records to meet separate audit requirements, and taking longer to drain your email sump, none of this will amount to an increase in your productivity–just a decrease in your available time.

But it gets worse. Productivity as a faith system is inseparable from the operations of the paywalled academic journal publishing industry and its enclosure of publicly funded research inside a privileged domain. So it’s one of the most corrupting pressures placed on the public mission of universities and the values of those who choose to work in them. Should it be the means by which we measure each other as well? In May this year, Melonie Fullick wrote a critical analysis of productivity in higher education that’s worth reading in full.

The concern about time and “production” can be internalized to the point where we strive to find ways of making our progress visible. But for much of what we do, this may not be possible.

If academic work is about knowledge, and we come to apply the concept of “productivity” to this work without questioning the implications, then what are we saying about how knowledge happens – and the nature of knowledge itself? The epistemological question flows from the question of governance. If we govern universities on the same terms that we manage factories, we change our relationship to knowledge and also the nature of what we “know”.

Parallel to this, Richard Hall has been writing all year about the increasingly fraught relationship between the managerialist ideal of the quantified academic self and the operation of the university as an anxiety machine. He looks closely as an expert educational technologist at what lies behind the recruitment of technology to help capitalism come to terms with the diminishing productivity (in other words, profitability) of human labour. It’s a grim picture, painted by a pathologically successful senior academic, of the consequences of our complete capitulation to the logic of overwork.

We won’t address these deep and damaging structural inequities within higher education work by using its most broken instruments to surveil and rebuke each other—this is complicity with bullshit, and it won’t change a thing.

For G.M. and R.C.


5 thoughts on “Calling it out

  1. Our older academics are our main source of zombie resistance, we inherent their strategies and struggle, and lose their inoculations as they go.

  2. Where do you end up when you’re not complicit with bullshit? The anxiety machine is a global phenomenon, including in academia. Knowledge workers can call attention to the dissolution of human values and practice in workplaces, but where lies the power to transform increasingly mad institutions? I hope Scotland votes yes – in favour of fairness, democracy and anti-austerity.

Conversation welcome here