Why I’m leaving.

Published in the column “The View from Here”, The Independent,
January 2002

Note. This is the original version. It was slightly edited for publication.

Term is starting and I’m not going back! Whoopee! At the age of fifty I feel like a wild schoolgirl tearing off my hated uniform and bursting into a chorus of ‘No more Latin, no more ….’ only this time it’s ‘No more meetings, no more forms, no more TQA and no more …’

It’s really true. I have given up my secure academic job as Reader at the University of the West of England for the vagaries of life as a freelance. And why? Because I want to work – really work – and my job made that impossible.

Am I mad? The losses include a reliable salary, a pension, sick pay, a heated room, and a computer that someone comes to mend when it breaks down. But I can do without those (I think). The gain is a true academic life at last. I can devote my time to thinking, and reading and writing; to sharing ideas with others; to asking questions of the universe and trying to find the answers. The simple fact is that I could not do these things and the job. Maybe some people can get home after a long day and have brilliant thoughts. Maybe some can write the best book they are capable of in the hours stolen from their sleep, or from their children. But I can’t. Instead I’m hoping to make enough from TV, radio, writing and whatever else comes along, to buy myself time – time to really work.

It’s a funny situation, and I am telling you about it because of the wider issues raised. One is the question of whether, and how, a rich and civilised society like ours should support intellectuals. ‘Intellectuals’ are not much admired in our country, though they are in many others, but we do have a long history of intellectual excellence. The deal used to be, for the cleverest or luckiest few – get a job in a university, give a reasonable number of lectures, do a few other useful tasks, and the rest of the time is yours. Yes it was often abused, and yes we can’t afford that in today’s climate, with so many more students. But what have we instead? The current deal is to give an unreasonable number of lectures, to ever larger groups of less interested students, plus a completely mind-boggling amount of marking, setting exams, going to meetings, and – on top of all that – justify everything you do with learning outcomes, aims and objectives, and the TQA. Or – if you can’t stand that, and you are good enough – win enough research money to run a lab, publish in the best journals and keep ahead of the RAE race.

Inside the university life has become accountable. As in big business every lecture has a price, every student pays a fee, and every piece of research can be given a score (meaningful or not). But this commercialisation of academia has stopped half way. In the big world out here we academics are still taken for granted. Even the best scientists are expected to give a lecture in a distant venue, or give up a day for a television interview, or travel across the world for a keynote conference address – for free (oh we do pay travel expenses – economy class of course, booked in advance to save us money). Meanwhile the business execs get a fat fee commensurate with their accumulated knowledge and years of experience, and walk on that furry carpet through to ‘First Class and Business only’. And we still work for free? Of course we do, because it’s true. We didn’t become academics for the money but for the love of the subject. Like stable girls and dancers, we can be exploited because we love what we do.

That, I guess, is my point. It’s become very hard to love your subject the way it deserves to be loved. Stay inside the system and there’s no time to think – go outside and you have to fight for every fee. But I’m determined to love the mystery of consciousness. So I’ve made my choice. I’ll trade in the official deal for the precarious balancing act of an academic with no job.

And will I miss anything at UWE? Oh yes. I’ll miss those magic moments when you know you’ve inspired a clever student, or helped a not-so-clever one understand something really difficult. But such moments are increasingly rare as the classes get bigger, the time to prepare gets shorter, and the forms get longer.

No, I’ll swap all that any day for the agony of writing. And next year, if you catch me reading the appointments page, you are welcome to laugh.