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John Passant

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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
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Some advice to new academics

So, you’ve spent 3 years cloistered away, divorced from society, family and friends, writing 100,000 words for your doctorate on some specific, narrow and often obscure or esoteric topic. That of course is far and away the best preparation for dealing with hundreds of students on wide ranging topics and subjects.  Be prepared for a shock.

That is not the only shock you will encounter. Some students aren’t that bright. In fact, some are door post dumb. But because Universities are now a business, the more students the University takes on, the more money the University gets. And when it comes to marks, the customer is always right. Up to a point.

This means you will have to pass people who have no idea about the subject you are teaching. Indeed they may have no idea about life either but years of underfunding of secondary education and doing rote tests have trained them into thinking they are the new Einsteins.  The idea of hard work may be foreign to them.

The idea of attending classes definitely will be. But that is OK because technology means you can record your lectures. Not many students listen to the recordings. So if not many attend, and not many listen, what do they do?

Well, the weekend before the exam, or before the essay is due, they’ll cram in a few things and regurgitate them onto the exam paper or essay. That of course has to be rewarded with a high distinction because it is what students expect. It is also what Universities reward.

Because the living allowances for students are so low, and restricted, many students work long hours in jobs just to survive. On top of that, inadequate University funding means they get run down overcrowded rooms with inadequate portals and the like; the libraries are underfunded; there aren’t enough support staff; and academics are stretched to breaking point.

Students also want to finish their degrees and earn the big bucks as quickly as possible. So full-time students doing full time jobs are not that uncommon. Some Universities are accommodating this by having lectures at night, so your day could begin work at 9 in the morning and end at 10 at night.

Instead of the traditional 2 semesters a year, pushing students through 3 semesters a year cuts a 3 year degree to 2 years. Guess which bunnies will do that extra teaching?

Universities are run along business lines. Vice-Chancellors are the new CEOs. The product is not knowledge or better or critical ways of thinking but a piece of paper for a few years of study, a piece of paper students can barter for high wages and prestige positions (or so they think.) A piece of paper that is sold for 30 pieces of silver. That is the new educational KPI par excellence – is your course profitable?

Eventually business and government are going to realise that buying a piece of paper isn’t a guarantor of critical thinking, knowledge or aptitude. But in the decade or so that it is going to take them to figure that out, you new academics just keep inflating results. That will give you good student feedback. And that is important for keeping your job and advancing in your academic  career.

Students liking you is just one of the Key Performance Indicators. Publications is another. So in your early years write as much shit as you can to get published in refereed journals. It won’t matter that much at the beginning of your career if it is in the Timbuktu Journal of Political Science or the American Journal of Political Science.

In the first stages of your career, you will be writing for and read almost solely by a select few others in the field so it always helps to cite them.  Your aim is to join their group so you can get published in their circle and cited by them. Write the same sort of shit they do.

Look for good honours and research students. Add your name to their honours or other thesis and try to get that published. After all, you supervised them, and it’s not as if you are stealing their work unattributed. It’s more about you introducing them to academic publishing. It’s just a side benefit that you get another publication on the belt of academic publishing conquests. Console yourself with the fact that your magnanimity is also reaping a small personal reward.

Journal rankings have been abolished because some Universities made inappropriate use of them. However, as you progress in your career, publication in A and A* ranked journals evidently indicates you are shit hot. Universities still do take the rankings, which supposedly no longer exist, into account. So aim for them. Try to find an A or A* ranked journal that shouldn’t be, one that will be more willing to accept your possibly less than stellar contributions.

All this writing means you can kiss goodbye to a life outside work. There is no 38 hour week for academics. 45 or 50 hour weeks are not uncommon. Academic Stakhanovites might even work 60 hours. There are lots of them.

Not only that, but don’t imagine this extra time is taken up with just or only research. Universities are cutting costs by not only getting rid of academic staff and increasing teaching hours for those who remain. They are also cutting the number of support staff, so that those who remain are stressed, overworked and prioritising their work. This means academics have to do a lot of administrative work which in the past would have been done by professional staff.

Don’t be surprised too if many of your new colleagues are –  how to put this delicately? – strange. Giving individuals free reign in obscure fields can produce or reinforce strange behaviour. The nature of the work attracts introverted individuals.

The commercialisation of Universities might be destroying the niche areas and the new homogeneity might be teaching business studies to 600 students but not everyone wants to be a business manager, or even a lawyer or doctor.  So there is still room for the nutters, the societally challenged, the socially inadequate, the extremely introverted.

Prepare yourself for something else too. Universities are dictatorships. The VC is the king and the Deans the feudal lords. You are a lowly peasant.

As a newbie at the bottom rungs you will have little say or influence. You will be ordered about and bullied. You can almost certainly forget continuing to do work on your favorite areas of research coming out of your completed Ph D.

You’ll need to find a research area that brings in money. Grants is the name of the game. So focus your research, not on the social implications of the regulation of basket weaving in Timbuktu, but on trendy areas with money – something about regulating capitalism for the benefit of capitalism which doesn’t actually challenge ruling class domination is perfect – or those which industry is interested in.

A word of advice. What industry wants is not to invest money in research and development. It wants R&D done on the cheap for it in Universities and funded by government, but for business to be able to reap the rewards.

Grants are hard to get. And if you do win one they will often be inadequate, with little support from business until you have developed the profitable idea. Then the University or business will  eat you alive and purloin the product.

Figure out too where the power lies in the School or the Faculty. Often, but not always, it will be the Dean or Head of School. Suck up to them, Play friendly games with them. Do if you can joint work and joint publications with them. Flatter them, and maybe get them to mentor you. Stroke their egos.

Do all of this despite the fact they may be the strangest of the strange, or the most ruthless, or the most backward, or the most bullying, or the most dictatorial or the most incompetent person you have ever met. Or all of the above.

Work out as well which faction dominates and its likely longevity. Go with them. Moderate your research interests to fit into theirs. Suck up to them.

Mouth the platitudes from the Vice-Chancellor about continual improvement, and serving students and their needs,  about world class research, about improving the rankings. All vitally important to say.  As long as you are getting published and students like you and some ‘research’ money is coming your way, and all your colleagues like you, you’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter that standards and improving the world in any real sense are missing from the equation.

Universities are profit centres and to get ahead you have to play the game. Write publishable rubbish. Pass poor students. Get quick and dirty grants. Be a sycophant to power.

Don’t whatever you do join the union and fight for the idea of education as a public good, or for a living wage for students and improved wages and conditions and less stress for staff or for adequate funding and support for Universities and education more generally.

Years later when you have made it up the greasy pole of academia the fact that you are now a manipulative, bullying, deceitful, dictatorial and socially useless person but a well remunerated adjunct of business and profit will have been a small price to pay for your success.



Comment from recent honours student
Time December 6, 2012 at 3:09 pm

more or less spot on, mr passant – I’ve had to learn this the hard way…

Comment from ishi
Time December 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm

i think its an open question about what academics are (and even teachers for example). the same may be true for ‘activists’ (including ideologues, such as ones like the ‘PLP” that i cam across recently working on prison issues and HIV).

some academic is really just rhetoric, which is a waste commonly given the price and its redundancy (eg another book on some subject which has been treated at depth many times before, but this may not be mentioned nor other works cited—its publish/perish material). but then, elementary school teacher repeat truth about arithmatic and the alphabet though these have been known for many years, and repetition (as in science) may be neccesary. email lists and conversations often are just a way to pass time, which presumably is also neccesary since one can’t do ‘productive work’ all the time.

academics in science do do something—eg create the web—-though of course this may be useful for social justice/green types, but also fascists and authoritarians.

i tend to think DIY forms of education might be optimal, as with ‘self-government, but i am not sure how viable these are in reality. One does need division of labor in this society, so ‘every cook can’t be a governor’ (eg CLR James).

however this article i think paints too broad a brush, because producing it does require some academic expertise (eg in science) which shows that throwing the entire baby out with the bathwater really is not a viable idea. (unless perhaps if one chooses to live without any expertiesde apart from say, hunting and gathering).
i think the real question is what counts as academia oif value—ancient greek? shakepseare? quantum theory? computer programming? green technology? maybe those questions are too hard to think about compared with writing a blog post.

Comment from Ross
Time December 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Humans whether they be Public Servants or Corporate Elites always find the line of least they want the maximum reward for the least amount of effort.

Our system is in a period of total collapse and we need a vision far better than the left/right paradigm that is just a distraction from the real cancer ie the private elites own our productivity by creating from nothing the money to equal our toil.

The real issue John is un-necessary Govt Debt.

Comment from SaintsinFreo
Time December 6, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Spot on John.I work on the outskirts of academia(a pathway college) and find it a remarkably alienating experience trying to push people through to the next level,which is the ‘promised land’ of the actual university.I go to sleep at night trying to think of new and exciting ways to help students become critical thinkers but seem to be surrounded by people in administration who are slaves to mantras,buzzwords and KPIs – a critical thinking-free zone!Of course,the ‘customer’ has paid and the service must be delivered.As you point out,the more customers the better for the school/university.

Comment from SaintsinFreo
Time December 6, 2012 at 11:47 pm

My advice to people interested in becoming an academic would be to become a carpenter instead.If only I had followed in my father’s footsteps,I would never have been introduced to the awful notion of the KPI!

Comment from Lorikeet
Time December 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm

When I worked in a leading university in the late 1970s, I found some of the academic staff were more interested in their research, which meant students often came second.

Our universities now seem to teach government propaganda, which is why students graduating in psychology and social work believe that to raise your voice or give a child a smack are criminal offences.

These days it also seems to be a crime to come up with an original idea, and students have unethical ethics forced upon them whether they like it or not.

Comment from Kay
Time December 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Well, John, you gave me a good laugh! My husband is a retired academic and still has an emeritus professorship – in science/engineering. Sadly, what you say is not that far off the mark. Perhaps life is a bit easier in the physical sciences/engineering fields – he has always been very successful with research grants. But he also got prizes for teaching as well. Teaching excellence is too often overlooked! It is good teachers who inspire students.

Comment from John
Time December 7, 2012 at 7:57 pm

In the 90s when I taught I was a great teacher. Students loved me. 15 years later back into it and my first set of students were up in arms because I set them group work that required them to do more than just cram the weekend before. They rated me badly because of this and because I told them they wrote shite. The standards were very different in the space of 12 years or so.

Comment from John
Time December 7, 2012 at 7:58 pm

Yes, I don’t think left wing tax academics or social scientists are much in demand by business for grants.

Comment from Kay
Time December 10, 2012 at 6:32 am

A great teacher will always be able to engage his/her students. Perhaps your tolerance level was not what it used to be when you returned to academia? Mind you, if you treat those students who disagree with your views with the same contempt and rough language as you do on this Blog, I’m not surprised that they aren’t impressed.

Comment from John
Time December 10, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Perhaps students have changed and the nature of University has changed with the neoliberal agenda taking it over.

Comment from Ralph Bennett
Time December 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm


By “peeling the onion” on why universities have become profit driven and support for students so poor, one needs to look at what our society spends it’s money on.

There is say ” $ 4 billion ” available for a new road system caused by population growth and no money left for adequate funding of education, health and research for export manufacturing.

We need to join the dots and rapidly stabilise our population by having balanced migration ( 80,000 leave , then bring in 80,000 ) and abolish the baby bonus.

Stabilisation is an internationally transportable design and is easily acheived , if “The Green Left” understands the concept of the Opportunity Cost of Growth .

The design needs to be fixed, as the present one is grossly flawed.

All the best,


Comment from Emma
Time December 11, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Well said John. This is the way of all education systems in the current economic climate- bastions of bullying, overwork, falling standards and duplicity.
I work at the bottom levels and have seen the fudging of research results, the downgrading of standards and the downright bullying between colleagues that is now occurring. All systems are currently premised on the greed of the marketplace.

Comment from John
Time December 12, 2012 at 7:01 am

Thanks Emma. Always good to have one’s own sense of what is happening confirmed.