Signing off bang bang, kiss kiss British academia

As mentioned a few weeks ago on twitter, I left my employment at Swansea University and checked out from British academia. At the time I tweeted that there was plenty to say  about the state of British academia and why I took this decision. The decision itself is based on micro and macro reasons, and while the former belong to me+family, the second may warrant a wider discussion.

Current state of affairs

The current state of affairs at UK universities is not great. On the backdrop of the current union disputes with Universities are a number of ongoing changes in how the sector operates. In essence it boils down to a progressive deterioration of working conditions and no one likes to lose privileges. Workloads have been on the increase and so has the casualisation of work, particularly in the bottom rungs of the academic ladder. I managed to get a permanent position 10 years ago with a single publication, but that would be impossible today.

Daily pressures have increased and again those are mostly felt at the bottom/mid-level of the said academic ladder. Progression is more difficult and slower than in the past with requirements way higher than when the bulk of the current cohort of professors was appointed. For those trying to make their way up the greasy pole, it's as if the drawbridge is being pulled.

So, no wonder people are not happy and willing to strike, even though their main claim is still around pensions.

Where are British unis headed

Frankly, I wasn't particularly happy with the status quo but if I knew it would remain the same it might have tempted me to stay put and just accept the changes. However, I do not believe we touched the bottom yet and think we're still some distance away from the bottom. And that's why I could not commit myself to spend the next 10-20 years in the UK.

What I think will happen is that those academic working conditions will get ever worse. Yes, work demands will keep on rising and that will impact work-life balance and also the type of work an academic does. Activities like teaching, recruitment, pastoral care and general busyness will keep increasing and that will impact time for research even more than it already does. Why? Because universities are in a dire financial situation and the only way to balance the books when fees are capped are to get more students through the door while promising a quality of service identical to that of previous cohorts.

This means that in the next few years UK institutions will look a lot more like their Southern European peers in Portugal, Spain or Italy: underfunded, with huge student cohorts and with academics doing research 'on their own time'. The financial situation will also freeze the academic 'transfer market' as well as progression inside each institution. In short, academics are going to be stuck at their current institution and at the level they're currently at. Care to imagine what that will do for relations between colleagues? My money is that it is not going to be pleasant.

In short, things will get worse (and a lot worse if Government cuts HE funding...) before they get any better.

Law schools

Law schools are particularly exposed to the issues mentioned earlier as they are one of the go to departments when VCs want to drive an increase in numbers. However, the sector is already pumping 21,000 law graduates every year when the number of training contracts has remained reasonably stable below 6,000. As a term of comparison, France has 70,000 lawyers altogether and the UK has 150,000 so the number of law graduates every seven years is enough to replace the whole stock of current lawyers in the country. And we all know legal careers are not held for seven years...

There is simply no need to produce this many legal graduates, even if one puts some rose tinted glasses of what other areas they can work in besides law. And if they can work in those sectors, why doing law in the first place? It makes no sense to have 100 law schools in the country. It really doesn't.

So while the top universities increase the size of their cohorts, the smaller ones will struggle and they may be departments to close down if the financial situation really becomes dire for the weaker universities.

And then there's the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) which has morphed over the years and God knows what it will end up looking like. So far, one of its defining features, however, is the disappearance of the qualifying law degree. As long as a candidate has *any* degree, it will be accepted for examination. This destroys the gatekeeping role law schools have had thus far in the access to the profession. Once it is gone law schools will have to justify their own existence to prospective law students. I, for one, welcome the changes but most of my former colleagues are worried about the impact brought around by this specific change.

EU law anyone?

If the above wasn't enough to make anyone working in legal academia in the UK sweat profusely, spare a thought for anyone who built its career working in EU law. EU law is only taught in English and Welsh law schools because it is a core subject demanded by the SRA and the BSB. With the whole idea of a qualifying law degree gone and the UK out of the Union, it is easy to guess where law schools will find some space in their curriculum to fit in some classes related to the new SQE exam.

As an EU law focused academic (and not entirely on his own accord...) for me the decision to leave had become obvious for a good while and I'm glad to have acted on it accordingly.

And from next Monday I will be working again on an EU Member State.

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