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Why Did Academia Become so Sh*t?


As most of my friends and I have finished up our PhDs, we tend to get together and take some reflections. Most of us, even if we have “officially” left academia, still have academic collaborations to maintain, publications to pursue or still engage with teaching students. As a result, we’re both at a distance, comfortably observing, but we’re also still engaged enough to know what’s going on. And one thing we can clearly see, having been in the space for several years, is that academia has become utterly sh*t, from almost every angle. There’s several angles to academia: there is the teaching and education aspect, there’s the students’ work and engagement, and last there’s the career growth and compensation aspect. All of these play a key role in what in my eyes is essentially the demise of academia.


 

Career growth and compensation Most academics are in the field to do research. Some really enjoy teaching, most simply ‘deal with it’. This is not exactly the best attitude to a job, but it is one that has been fostered by the institutions themselves for decades. Although academia seems very ‘free-flowy’, it isn’t. Academics have KPIs (performance measures) too. And for an academic to progress in their career and make promotion they need to publish. ‘Publish or perish’ is not an expression made out of thin air, this is how this field works. So taking meetings with collaborators that go on for hours is not a bad idea, granted that this eventually turns into a publishable paper. But spending similar time on course preparation and teaching, well, unless you’ve got KPIs outlining that you really have to do this, doesn’t seem like it’s going to aid your career much. Also, most KPIs are written like ‘must teach X amount of courses/hours’. They’re not written in terms of quality, FIY. So the incentive structure of an average academic isn’t rigged in a way that promotes actually putting a lot of effort into teaching, and all that this entails (preparation, lectures, seminars, marking, admin.). And I’m not saying there’s not a single academic who doesn’t enjoy teaching, I’m sure there’s plenty. But even those academics who teach out of passion are struggling with the next point…



The Students and their work I have taught several courses during my PhD and continue to do so now. Some courses I really enjoyed teaching, others were awful. What makes for a good course, you may ask? Good students. I don’t think I’m asking for too much, but I would like my students to show up and engage, preferably because they’ve done (some of) the homework. I remember being a student myself and I was exactly like this. Issue is, the majority isn’t any more. Through the past decades we’ve seen universities become more and more popular, despite the massive and growing price ticket associated with studying. Everyone needs a degree to get ahead in the world. This is also known as degree inflation. It’s also a false belief. What does this lead to? Well, academics who didn’t want to teach, or aren’t being incentivized/compensated properly to teach now have to deal with massive cohorts. Cohorts that due to the price ticket are there to ‘buy’ their future. They know, just like we do, that they’re being ‘pumped out’. They’re being ‘mass produced’ amongst hundreds of others in the same degree. Just as the academic is demotivated by the lack of reward for teaching, the student is demotivated as going to university has become a ‘tick box’ exercise. And their engagement and work suffers as a result of that. Making it even worse for the academic. It’s a vicious cycle. And there’s another issue, which is rather sensitive but is also becoming increasingly insane: students’ English is getting worse and worse. I’ve had students in my classes - and so have my friends, and we’re all from English speaking institutions in the UK, US or Australia - that I’m convinced of barely understood what I was saying. Sure, maybe they didn’t interact much because they were shy, but that shouldn’t impact their written work too much in terms of language use. Well, it did. It makes marking, a not so fun task to begin with, excruciating.


Teaching and education Now take the fact that both parties aren’t motivated to make the most of this experience and you’ve got the worst start imaginable to a course. But don’t worry, at least one person will have to put the effort in. And it’s not the students. Although most (research) academics don’t have KPIs reflecting teaching quality, there is a more recent measure which has added some pizzazz to this dumpster fire: student evaluations. Also known as: did I like the teacher and was it entertaining? There’s a reason quiz apps and other interactive education apps like Kaboom are becoming more popular. Anything to get the students engaged in a ‘fun and novel’ way, predominantly using the laptops and phones they’re constantly using already, rather than listening to you, and you’ve got a hit on your hands. Does it improve teaching quality? We’re really not sure. But it impacts student evaluations, which means the academic is off the hook. Phew. You might be thinking that as the majority of students don’t put in any effort, they should just fail the course, right? Originally I’d agree with you there. If they were there for reasons of passion and curiosity and against a reasonable price ticket then yes. However, it’s not this cohort of students who’ve turned universities into mass producing factories of ‘knowledge’ with a price ticket that can set up some families for life. So no, the fact that a lot of them don’t put in any effort won’t actually have any consequences. And this is mainly because everything gets graded against a curve. So if a lot of students do really poorly, they just get ‘curved’ where scored just averaged out. Sure, the poorest 10% or so still fail, and the best 10% can feel real good about themselves. But the middle 80% is exactly that, in the middle. Does this seem like a good idea? No, not at all. Without context this sounds like universities are dumbing down courses and as a result, entire degrees (they are). But applying the context can you fail someone who is paying around ~30,000 pounds for a degree and the ‘student experience’? Also, keep in mind that if the majority of students perform poorly, this doesn’t reflect on the system being broken or that cohort just being lazy or unbothered. It reflects bad on the academic who taught them. This is a lose-lose game.


 


Combining these three factors you might be able to see why the academia from 50 years, or maybe even 10 years ago is no longer the academia we have today. And this article doesn’t even focus much on ‘publish or perish’, the exploitation of junior staff, the mass PhD exodus into industry, the exploitation of teaching staff (they’re getting the brunt of what I described above) and in general a move of academics having to also hold industry side-hustles to get ahead in life. But that’s for another time…

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