The Australian Government published a consultation paper in 2010 on meeting Australia’s future research workforce needs.
The basic premise of this paper was that, like many sectors, higher education is facing the iminent retirement of a whole bunch of baby boomers. We need to be prepared to replace this aging workforce so that the higher education ship sails smoothly on.
When we narrow things down to ‘supply and demand’ like this we tend to miss the bigger picture. In the words of Eva Cox we ‘don’t live in an economy, we live in a society’.
To some degree the discussion paper tried to flesh out some of the complexities around creating a future research workforce, but often it missed the wider social picture.
I want to ask you why it is that the traditional path to academia entrenches the so called ‘ivory towers’ of academic elitism? Why does academia remain so separate from society – critiquing it from afar, but not working with it to solve problems and discuss issues?
We want to foster modern research and teaching institutions which are relevant to society. We want to foster research which cuts to the very heart of issues of public policy. And yet the system rarely allows for the employment of those with public policy, or other ‘real world’ experience.
To become an academic you must undertake a PhD. In the competitive world we live in, to secure a permanent position at a university you must usually also undertake a post doc. Yet the system around post docs does not facilitate ‘real world’ experience.
The maximum time after graduating with a PhD that you are still eligible to apply for a post doc is 5 years. For the majority of post docs it is 3 years.
If you want to have an academic career you are encouraged to go straight from honours to a PhD and straight from a PhD to a post doc. If you enter another profession, you have at best a 3-5 year window of opportunity to move into academia.
Why do we have such an outdated concept of an expiry date of usefullness 5 years after doing a PhD?
If we are really serious about getting academic input into public policy, surely we should look to be employing those with public policy and other workplace experiences in academia. Likewise, surely we should be looking to employ some acaedmics in public policy. Cross pollination!
Why do we bind people into linear research careers instead of having a relationship back and forward between, government, the private sector and universities?
And what about life experience away from the workplace?
The Department of Education recognises the experience that raising children provides for women and men with caring responsibilities. If new teachers can document time spent being a full time carer for children, teachers can be deemed to have additional years experience.
The system of post docs throughout Australian universities places no value on life experience, only on the number of publications churned out.
Like many workplaces, women are under represented within the academic staff at universities, and particularly at senior levels. For a woman who takes a career break to raise children after a PhD, the door is shut on an academic career 3 years after graduation. If you have 2 kids, this is enough to put an end to the option of an academic career.
Last week was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. There was a whole range of talks and lectures and events where everything from quotas on boards to violence against women was discussed.
But this week the action has begun to die down again and we have got back to ‘business as usual’.
In 2011, when we’re celebrating 100 years of action towards equality, do you realise Vice Chancellors that only 2 Australian universities accept the reality of how difficult it is for women to juggle mother hood and an academic career by offering re-entry fellowships for women?
2 universities in the whole of Australia!
If you are serious about increasing the number of women in Australian universities then you need to think beyond the traditional acaedmic career pathways and traditional post doc models.
If you are serious about getting better intersections between universities, government and the private sector then you also need to re-think current models.
It’s no longer International Women’s Day. The fanfare has gone.
As a test of how committed you are to advancing women in higher education, I challenge you to think about creating more re-entry fellowships for women.
Provide opportunities where they are limited at the moment. And to do it on a day which is just another day of the year. Because it’s the kind of thing we should be thinking about every day of the year.
And whilst you’re at it you could throw in a few fellowships for others who have spent time in other (non academic) areas which will valuably inform their research. At the moment, their time away from ‘academia’, something that could even be their strongest asset, has effectively ruled them out of it.
We don’t have to have ivory towers. And we can have more equality.