Retiring Baby Boomers Bankrupt Academia

28 August 2012
As published in the Australian Financial Review on 28/08/2012, pp24-25

UNIVERSITIES should consider hiring professionals without post-graduate degrees to fill the tertiary teaching void as almost half the nation’s “baby boomer” academics sit on the cusp of retirement.

National debate is urgently needed on new employment models potentially redefining who can and can’t teach, allowing community leaders and professionals to enter the tertiary sector.

The flexible models need to be considered, if Australia is to have enough academics to teach the number of students needed to meet the Bradley Review’s 2025 target to lift bachelor degrees to 40 percent.

Universities have long used the expression “equivalent professional experience” when recruiting and promoting staff, and in fact the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency uses this same terminology in their Provider Course Accreditation Standards – but the phrase “equivalent professional experience” has yet to be explicitly defined or enforced.

Now is in fact the time to define “equivalent professional experience” with 56 percent of Australia’s academia to poised to exit the system over the next five to 10 years.

The percentages translate to about 5000 of the nation’s most senior academics – Associate Professors and Professors – leaving the system, with the current stock of young scholars not large enough to replace the number of retirements.

In addition, traditional overseas employment pools have dried up as Canada, New Zealand, America and England, bear the brunt of their own aging academia.

And with roughly 40 percent of Australia’s academics born overseas, and the international “war for talent” erupting; urgent, innovative changes are needed to keep and consolidate experts already on hand, as well as attract new professionals and young scholars into teaching.

Tertiary institutions are also witnessing a polarisation of the workforce, with a 5 percent drop in academic employees aged 30 to 39, experienced over the past 10 years.

Mentoring systems between senior and junior academics will help tame the knowledge gap, but with current research indicating it taking seven to nine years to develop a qualified academic, Australia will simply run out of teachers if old fashioned methods are employed.

While institutions can implement a variety of models to delay or phase in retirement, they would be better placed attracting a new cohort to move through.

National, co-ordinated debate is needed on the feasibility of professional staff – not just academic staff – taking on elements of academia.
For example, does 25 years as a practising lawyer equate to a Masters or PhD, and what benefit would students obtain from such real world experience?

Such a contemporary approach to learning has many pluses, including creating a better nexus between students and industry, resulting in more “real world classes”, producing more graduates who are “industry ready”. 

To ensure teaching standards remain at their peak, a national benchmarking system would need to be developed and enforced – perhaps through TEQSA – to ensure a standardisation of qualifications among the new face of academia.

With a national benchmark in place, universities could effectively expose their students to some of the greatest minds in the global community, not just those with a Masters or PhD.

In terms of why academics leave, or why new scholars fail to move into the profession, The Australian Council for Educational Research and the LH Martin Institute, in their recent study The Changing Academic Profession found seven main reasons undermining academia’s attractiveness including low salaries and job satisfaction and high workloads.

The study also found a high propensity for job change, limited research opportunities, poor resource support and dissatisfaction with contract conditions were other limiting factors.

In terms of job satisfaction, Australian academics rank second lowest of all academics worldwide, with only contemporaries from the United Kingdom scoring lower.

Universities need to re-think the minimum qualification profile for academic employees, as even though PhDs are seen as the basic qualification for an academic focused on research, less than one-quarter of all Australians with a PhD actually work in universities.

And with demand increasing for jobs requiring doctorate level qualifications, than jobs for any other level, the question begs: who will teach our students?

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