Idolised French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat”. After 24 years as an academic and senior lecturer in Higher Education, I am leaving the profession. What amounts to almost a quarter of a century is quite a long consecutive run. Maybe leaving higher education will re-invigorate me or it might highlight the complete folly of the last 24 years; I guess I will find out soon enough. The good news is that I am returning to the international entertainment industry, an industry that I’ve worked in for the last 38 years and it feels great.
Entering the teaching profession was not a conscious professional decision back in 1994; it was something I stumbled into. I completed an undergraduate degree in documentary filmmaking at the University of Humberside in my home city of Hull as a mature student. Joining a media degree at the age of 30, as one of only two mature students on the program, and after 16 years of working in the music industry was fun. Here I was hanging out with a load of hip young gunslingers for the next three years living and breathing documentary filmmaking. Upon completion of my degree, I worked very hard to obtain a first class with honours, the faculty Dean offered me some much needed, and well paid, part-time teaching work. That was the start, three hours teaching per week, which exponentially grew.
I studied very hard for various postgraduate degrees, including a teaching degree where I specialised in adult learners, an area I was sort of already an expert in. Once I had some formal qualifications I was taken on at the University of Humberside as an ‘Associate Lecturer’, a post I held for two years before I started chasing better and better jobs at different institutions around the UK. Eventually I became a Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) external examiner, a post I loved, which took me to different universities to advise on quality control, curriculum and resources. This was the golden period, in the words of England’s finest Baird, these where the “salad days“. My work was never boring, employers fantastic, salary and benefits above average and working conditions great. From my punk rock origins, I had now achieved respectability, my parents could discuss my career at their bourgeoisie dinner parties and be proud of their Timothy.
After 19 incredible years working in the UK’s public university sector I quit my job and followed the girl of my dreams across the globe to Melbourne, Australia. Before I had even left the UK I secured a full time teaching job via Skype at a private college in South Melbourne. Maybe I was incredibly naïve, or just plain stupid, but I was expecting this role would closely resemble my previous academic world; it did not. Not only where the salaries much lower, by lower I actually mean half what I had earned in the UK, but the whole culture was different. Having been an educator for so many years I knew that a good teacher sets context, raises questions and the really good ones enter into a dialogical relationship with their students. I worked as hard and as diligently as I ever had during the previous 20 years in the UK but there was no reciprocation from my employer. On numerous occasions the young, some would say inexperienced, academic management team made some horrendous decisions regarding teaching, learning, curriculum, staffing, resource management and even car parking. In an act of collegiality I often made offers to help and made suggestions on how to improve. In very clear terms I was told to keep out of it and that a lecturer on my grade had no interest in such lofty and important matters.
The salad had gone off; indeed it was wilted, limp and was starting to get kind of funky. Very quickly I became aware that lecturing staff were seen as a commodity. The pay was lousy, conditions terrible, no more conferences or research as “it’s of no benefit”. The academic staff where treated as a thankless workhorse. The majority of my academic colleagues were brand new to teaching, a lot of them ex-students. Professional development was virtually zero with only a token online program to keep the institution only just compliant with the external quality control organisations. Staff struggled; retention was terrible with some staff only completing one trimester. This was an extremely totally toxic environment and everyone knew it. This institution could only be described as a lifeboat. As with all lifeboats no one wants to be in it, exposed on open seas, in rough weather, it is uncomfortable and unpleasant but it just about keeps everyone’s heads above the waterline. I kept going, applied for many other jobs, obtained external position on boards, kept researching and publishing at my own financial cost but there had been a sea change.
Gone were the days of using my in-depth 30 plus years of subject specialism to develop and deliver cerebrally stimulating lessons and learning environments. This was all about delivering standardised curriculum to a large student cohort as quickly and efficiently as possible; this was a factory, a degree factory. In addition to the crushing force of the omnipresent workload calculator, I saw fellow academics being targeted by administrations. I witnessed the administration protect at all costs the lecturers who everyone knew were ineffective and lacked integrity, but were the most vocal about their own ‘success.’ It’s often stated that Millennials prize ethics in their work, and I was learning that higher education institutions are very unethical places. The idea that a student could actually fail a unit or even an assignment was heretical. Student retention was the only relevant metric in this drive for profitability; lets keep the pipeline open at all costs.
For the past five years I have had an extremely difficult time reconciling the educational environment that I was inhabiting. I had no secure datum line or that datum line had significantly shifted that I was not certain if higher education had changed or that I was becoming old and cantankerous. I felt undervalued, depressed, humiliated on a daily basis, that my talent, experience and formal qualifications were all wasted. The students had bought the second most expensive commodity of their lives, the first being property, on a loan from the government. The only entry qualification needed to obtain a place on one of these degrees was the ability to pay. Previously, I had worked in higher educations institutions with very high entry qualifications and expectations. As such, students were already high achievers. Many of the students I taught recently struggled with basic reading and writing. Making the assessed assignments project based compensated for this lack of basic cognitive skills. I am all for widening participation in higher education what I refuse to do is lower standards.
You don’t need to be an academic within the higher echelons to see the writing on the wall. One doesn’t get into teaching for money, but for the ability to make an observable difference every single day. I came to the conclusion that I probably was not making a positive contribution and that I was financially penalised for what I thought was my commitment to a noble and worthwhile career. Time to pack my bags and move on. Luckily the moment I stepped away for academia and teaching, I was offered, and accepted, a senior management role back in the entertainment industry. Sometimes it all happens for a reason and it doesn’t help to overthink situations despite all of my years as an academic.
I am available for lectures, seminars, workshops, master classes and broadcasts simply drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get back to you.