The hard life of the researcher

I am a researcher at a major university in Sydney. Because student numbers are going down year after year, my research budget is going down as well. Something is wrong here.

Universities supposedly have two responsibilities: to teach students and to do research. Both of these activities need money to work. But only teaching generates a significant amount of money. This is true, at least, in Spain and Australia, the countries in which I have this kind of experience. The money that universities generate from their students, either directly (course fees) or indirectly (government subsidies), must be enough to pay teaching and research activities. And here starts the problem.

If student numbers go down 15% this year, for example, it would make sense (although it would be very harsh) to sack 15% of the lecturers. Or, less bluntly, to pay 15% less teaching hours. Since the demand is lower, the offer needs to be lower. Less money is coming in, less money is being spent. Logical. But things do not work this way. When student numbers drop 15%, teaching staff are not fired but keep being paid. The only way that universities have to save the money that they are not making is to cut research budgets. Less travel to conferences, fewer and lower seed grants, etc.

In this situation, a decrease in teaching demand results not in a decrease in teaching offer but in a decrease in research activity. The logic of this beats me. Look at my case: I have been hired by the university to do only research. Not many people are in a similar situation, but those who are know that we are on the bottom rung of the ladder. The university gets money from the government for each paper we publish, but they give nothing in exchange. They don’t pay our salaries (they usually come from “external” research grants), they don’t help us travel to conferences to disseminate our research results (not a single cent), they don’t allow us to apply for grants (we are not real academics), they do not offer us permanent positions. We are temporary, have no career path, and enjoy very few rights. However, we need to sign our research results with the university’s name, our work is the university’s intellectual property, and the university will get paid for our research results. Again, beats me.

My position is a pure research one, and I probably produce a lot more research results than any average teaching academic. This makes sense, since I dedicate most of my work hours to do research. Paradoxically, lecturers have money to travel to conferences and to buy infrastructures and kick-start their research (which in most cases is reduced to a few hours here and there), but I don’t. Researchers like me are writing papers that have to be withdrawn from conferences because the university will not pay their trips. Well, what is the point in writing them, then?

Fortunately, some people at universities are intelligent enough to understand this and are moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, these people are not many, and they tend to be in the lower levels of the academic hierarchy. Very few full professors show some kind of committment towards research staff. My admiration goes to those that do.

What solution could I suggest? Well, if universities really want to do research, they should stop mocking around and create permanent, well funded research positions. Not a few, but many. As many as teaching positions. Why not? They must embrace research as a core competency, not as a byproduct of teaching. The skills necessary to do research are nothing to do with those required to teach, and so are the infrastructures needed and the business models. Universities are two-headed monsters that try to do both things and hardly accomplish one.

If doing research at university is not feasible or not appropriate, that is fine, but then don’t try to trick everybody into believing that research is magically done by temporary staff with a few cents or by lecturers in their spare time.

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