Bunged pipelines, professorial pensions and academic exit strategies

This is a post that has been fermenting for a while (with a small beery blow-out a few weeks back) and has now reached critical mass after I read a really nice article in the Guardian titled “Should ageing academics be forced to quit?”. It unleashes a new term “Bunged pipeline” that’s the finest I’ve seen since #ponzidemia, to quote directly:

“But a third inequality exists, so conspicuous that many of us don’t even see it. And that is the ageing population of (largely white, male) professors, who, since the 2011 law abolishing a mandatory retirement age, are holding onto their posts for longer than ever before. This is a problem because there are a limited number of professorships, and there is an ever swelling glut of PhD students and trainees looking to make a career in science.

This pipeline is not leaky – rather, the tap is on full and someone has stuck a bung into the other end. Something, as they say, has got to give.”

It sure as hell does! This problem doesn’t just hold at Oxford, it holds everywhere I’ve ever worked and visited as an academic (some much worse than others). It leads to an interesting question, one I was rhetorically asking the same evening this fermenting post prematurely blew the seal on the fermenter — Why the hell are these guys still here? Haven’t they got something better to do? Why don’t they get a life? Why not retire from science at 45 or 50?

I see three answers to this question, mildly inter-related and yet sometimes decoupled. They are:

  1. What I call the ‘professorial pension’, a nasty mix of tenure, weak payscale design.
  2. The twisted value systems of academia (and the old-boy feedback loop).
  3. The lack of established exit strategies.

I’m gonna start with 2, as I’m writing to a personal time limit today (practicing some mad journalism skillz). How does society define success in academia? What stereotype does it assign? Excepting the mad Einstein trope, what we’re normally presented with is the esteemed old gent, aged and wise, able to present a long CV full of awards and accolades and admissions to distinguished academies. This is a golden period of getting to hang around as the local reigning silverback, resting on your laurels, passing forth pronouncements of great wit and wisdom that are hungrily received by the next generation.

With the possible exception of Feynman (own set of problems), the scientific role models we’re all presented are largely devoid of any other kind of a life beyond this. We enter academia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and within the space of a Ph.D. and a postdoc, we’re easily sold on this line that all we should want in life is to be the grand old distinguished professor. Diversity is a relatively recent thing in the grand scheme of science, and it’s only now many of us see this as a cookie cutter we have no desire at all to fit. But in the good old days, the trope was magic, and given how many older professors I see desperately trying to fit that classic stereotype, it’s very clear that it has serious sway. Societal value systems are important, they’re the yardstick we use to define our own self-esteem. They drive us to leave communities when we don’t feel like we fit (part of why we have a leaky pipeline in terms of diversity in science), they also drive some of us to stay…

If we want to fix the “Bunged Pipeline” we really need to redefine success in academia. Perhaps it needs to be more like professional sport, we come in, we reach our peak, and then we retire to contribute elsewhere. Where the people who hold on too long risk real ridicule and loss of face, much like Michael Schumacher and Bjorn Borg and Mark Spitz. Maybe in academia it should be all about picking the right time to go, and your currency is then about what else you managed to do for the world thereafter. After all, I think it is pretty widely acknowledged that scientists do their best work in their 30s and 40s, despite there being a few exceptions (good policy is all about catering exceptions well).

In my view, the old world picture of academia and senior professors is now so obsolete as to be totally comical. I’m not sure about the younger generations, and while there are some of my Gen-X colleagues who are sold on this dream, many of us quietly ridicule the whole charade with a 50%/50% mix of mockery at the inability of many of them to even deal with, e.g., an online form, let alone big data, and jealousy at how good a deal they have, one that we or any generation following us will ever receive, which brings me to 1.

Look in many university departments at who is carrying the hard graft of making the department work and it’s almost always the most senior people who aren’t yet full professor. I know in my own department, with the exception of the head of school, the key tasks are all carried by young cadre of A/Profs and Senior Lecturers. The key reason for this is what I call the ‘professorial pension’ and feigned incompetence. The academic system is designed as a game of snakes and ladders with lots of ladders and some snakes down low that basically throw you out of the game entirely. Pay scales with level, and so the higher you go, the more you get paid. And don’t think this is just about that single magical Professor (E1) pay grade, the only one you ever see on a HR website… there’s a set of unlisted levels up there that you only find out about through some special linear combination of jealousy, boasting and alcohol or getting promoted to Prof. yourself. As someone famously quipped ‘Level E is the new Level B’. And in the gold old days, there were even special deals like free parking, cars, paid mobile phones, etc. as grapevine has it. I suspect this is mostly gone now.

The kicker is once you’re up there, you just never come back down. Imagine that, you get that magic promotion to Professor and, presuming you don’t do something so bad as to get fired and can avoid your department being disbanded entirely, you will be paid at least $180k for the rest of your working life, and then a super-sweet defined-benefit pension deal thereafter (separate ponzi for a separate post). Why the hell would you do anything to benefit your department any more? It’s not like you have to take on any of these admin or leadership roles to get ahead. And hey, suppose you can’t bring yourself to say no, you can always bungle them just badly enough that no one ever gives them to you again, yet not so bad that you get fired. You become a member of that special class of ‘basket case’ professors, the ones that can’t be given tasks because they won’t get done or will end up as a disaster. It doesn’t take long in your life as a senior lecturer or A/Prof. to find yourself carrying a sea of key tasks, and when you say ‘but who else can do it’, be worked through a list of “What about Prof. A? Nah, he’s a basket case, can’t give it to him. What about Prof. B? Oh, you should see what happened last time he got given a task…” Nothing like being able to just leave a disaster for others to clear and walk away with that swagger that only a guaranteed income can provide (“the more you ignore it, the cooler you look”).

There’s other problems that come from this ‘professorial pension’, beyond a bunch of overpaid professors, past their prime, contributing little to their departments, while collecting a huge wadge of the departmental budget. What about the leadership of actually transforming the higher education system into something that is sustainable, via serious and possibly quite unpopular reform at the senior professoriate level, i.e. pulling out the bung? There’s little drive to do that either. Always back the horse called self-interest, right?

I’m going to credit my colleague Dane McCamey with this solution (he may well blame me instead for this crazy idea), but one wonders if it’s high time that the university system decoupled salaries from promotion, which is probably more palatable than my earlier suggestion of having ‘academic demotions’ (i.e., snakes at higher levels) in light of 2 above. Why should a professor at level E1 contributing much less to their university and department than a senior lecturer at C3 get paid so much more? And I’m not talking about on an annual basis here, I’m talking about the E’s who’ve done bugger all for years but still collect that fat premium? How is there going to be an incentive to either a) keep pushing your envelope, or b) go do something else and make room for the next generation, if you simply have to show up each day to keep earning the top salary in the remunerations structure no matter what you do?

Just to be clear, I wouldn’t go so far as tying salaries to publishing metrics and grant incomes and such in a linear and unsmoothed way — having salaries that fluctuate massively with your fortunes in massively over-subscribed fund lotteries or your ability to wring papers out of savagely underpaid Ph.D. students will create a whole new world of pain — but perhaps a way to unbung the pipeline is to stop making the system so financially comfortable for all the old professors who are jamming up the system? Perhaps they need to be re-exposed to the reality of needing to make useful contributions at a level commensurate to what they’re being paid. And if they aren’t, then there needs to be a financial incentive to do so.

Lastly to 3, maybe if we fix 2 and 1 above, there would become at least a slight incentive to leave academia, at least more than there is now. But will people take it if we don’t provide pathways to do so? In my opinion the career development structures in academia are woeful. In recent years, they’ve gone from nothing at all to an illusory minimum of an ‘annual performance review’ and a few voluntary half-day courses provided, if you can find the time amongst all the other tasks you’ve been lumped with. Of course, the people who’d love to do them and have some aptitude can’t because they’re too busy carrying all the load, and the ones who should and could have no incentive to anyway (Hey, I’m an E1 and tenured, why the hell should I develop myself, I’m fine).

Some of us, myself included, aspire to one day leave academia and contribute elsewhere in society. This is good for the universities in many ways, not the least in that it fixes the ‘bunged pipeline’, but that it enables them to broaden their impact on society. But the current behaviour by universities is quite the opposite — to declare an interest in stepping off the academic ladder is very dangerous (I take some risk in just articulating it here) because your colleagues will rapidly question your commitment to the research cause. This carries strong negatives in terms of allocation of funds and critical support both internally and externally. It also provides a disincentive to leave, which just naturally reinforces the exact problem we have now in 2. above.

Universities really need to do a much better job of helping their people to leave, and this should be, as all good things are, a mix of carrot and stick. The stick was mostly dealt with above on 1. The carrot is that universities can provide, as a fringe benefit, the exact thing that’s needed for their staff to take new careers — retraining. There’s a golden opportunity here for universities to generate something that has great reward for their business but near negligible cost. All academic staff should have, as a fringe benefit, the ability to sit one course a semester for free — they don’t have to take it, but they can. It can be anything they like, but it must count for proper credit on a real academic transcript and be accruable into a full degree. The university should also establish programs that enable more senior staff to build pathways out of academia into new sectors of society, e.g., industry, government, etc. Let me give an example for how this works.

Professor X gets to 45. It’s clear they’ve peaked, their field of research is getting tired, and they’d need a major reskilling beyond what a sabbatical can provide to stay at the pointy edge of science. Maybe they aspire to do something else anyway. University builds a plan to keep them going to a mutually agreed retirement point at 5 year horizon with sensible wind-down. They might want to go into public policy, so they do some subjects related to that for free in the background. They might want to go into data analytics and be short on the modern edge on the computing side. They might have, at 25, turned up a career in investment banking, and want to learn some finance and take their skills across. The university can help smooth the path via relationships with employers, etc., perhaps get them into some internships as the very end of the 5 year window approaches. It’s win-win here — Prof X gets to do something new and the university has someone placed in industry that they have a good link to (and substantial good will since they helped them get there rather than just suddenly dumping them on the kerb with a redundancy package). The universities also get to more sustainably manage their HR resource over time to ensure it stays current and modern, using a resource they can easily provide very cheaply, namely access to reskilling and existing links. It’s the kind of leadership in reform that I was hinting at earlier.

OK, that’s word and time limit for me. Quick acknowledgements to Marguerite Galea’s twitter feed for making me spot the Guardian article on the bunged pipeline, discussions on this topic with colleagues both IRL (Dane McCamey about better balancing pay with contributions & Merlin Crossley about how things can be improved for younger academics and how I need to think more pragmatically about this, in particular.) and online (too many to name all, but Mel Thomson is a key one).


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