Melissa Gregg on the travails of junior academics

Melissa Gregg, one of the better young researchers in the country, has done a lot of good work researching the precarious working lives of tech-savvy professionals.

Now she’s written a fine piece in New Matilda about the dire  state of the Australian higher education sector for junior academics:

s the system currently stands, junior scholars are asked to prove their worth to universities in ways that those hiring them never had to. The heads of search committees today didn’t even need a PhD to start their career, yet devise intricate formulae for assessing the accomplishments of those seeking to follow their example.

A book, multiple journal articles and a history of grant funding is now usually necessaryon top of a completed dissertation to make a shortlist after graduating. How it is possible to achieve any of these things, when handing in a thesis also means handing in any claim for library access, desk space or institutional support? The industry has divested the responsibility of training their smartest students to a level where they can gain access to sustainable long-term employment.

And of course, for those who do make it in the door, life isn’t exactly a picnic.

A recent survey of academics at one Sydney university showed a 100 per cent response rate when asked if they worked on weekends. My own research in the past few years has shown how tenured life involves a never-ending series of online administrative tasks that consume work and home life. All too rarely are these duties punctuated with face-to-face contact with colleagues and students — often the principal motivation for scholars to aspire to the job in the first place.

The situation Gregg describes is structural, owing to the sustained reduction in public funding per student since John Howard’s government took office in 1996.

But all is not lost. Other aspects of the higher education sector in Australia mean the long-term future for academics such as Gregg are relatively rosy. The Australian higher education workforce is ageing rapidly, and many senior staff will retire in the next 5-10 years. At that point, universities will have no choice but to embark on sustained hiring campaigns, simply in order to replace their current staff.

And let’s not forget that the lifetime income benefits accruing to those who gain higher degrees are very substantial. A robust literature has demonstrated that people who graduate with bachelors degrees earn significantly higher incomes across their lives than those who only complete high school.

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