Monday, December 30, 2019

Comparing US vs UK Academia

Having been back in the US for a full year now, it's interesting to compare how differently academia works here compared to in the UK (where I worked for the preceding 4.5 years).  I much prefer the US system, personally, but will try to offer an even-handed overview here.  Others are of course welcome to contribute their own observations in the comments (or email me if they'd prefer their comment to be posted anonymously).  I especially welcome any corrections if my observations aren't representative in some respects.

Firstly, advantages of the UK: 
* No "up-or-out" tenure-track system means that junior academics are hired directly into permanent positions, which removes a major source of stress for some people.

* More research events: the number of reading groups, colloquia, works in progress seminars, etc. -- often several such events every week during term time -- contributes to a very active-feeling "research culture".  I definitely appreciated that before having a kid.  (Now I need all the time I can get for doing my own work!)  Related: Junior academics are much more likely to receive research invitations in the UK than in the US, at least in my experience.

Ambivalent differences:
* Much shorter UK teaching terms, while highly condensed, may lead to more dedicated time available for research.  (Though I think I nonetheless prefer the more relaxed & spread-out teaching loads of the US.  I generally enjoy teaching, but not when I had to teach 10+ seminar groups in a single week.)

* More availability of grants you can apply for to potentially "buy out" your teaching & admin responsibilities and get more research time.  Great for those who are good at writing successful grants.  Otherwise, the application process (and low chances of success) can be a depressing time-sink.  Grant funding is a major factor in determining REF scores (see below) which can lead departments to put significant pressure on academic staff to spend more time pursuing grant applications.

Disadvantages of the UK:

* Far, far less workplace autonomy.  It's really impossible to exaggerate how different the jobs feel in this respect.  Teaching is a completely different experience, as assessment types for a given module are fixed and standardized at a departmental level.  Grading must be anonymous and "moderated" (or second-marked) by your colleagues, which rules out participation grades, oral presentations, or pretty much anything else besides the standard methods of essays & exams.  You can't offer students extensions (that goes through a formal committee that will demand documentation), punish plagiarists (another formal committee, with more documentation demands) or adjust your syllabus mid-term.  Depending on your institution, you may or may not be allowed to opt out of automatic voice recordings of all your lectures (or you may need to beg permission of a colleague in a senior management role). It's all extremely rigid.

* A pervasive sense of distrust.  A major reason for all of the above is that, institutionally, individual faculty members are not trusted to do a good job voluntarily.  There must be constant monitoring and oversight.  A big part of your job is to provide that oversight by monitoring your colleagues (e.g. second-marking) and serving on committees or in managerial roles that are empowered to make the decisions that individual faculty members (qua academic) are not allowed to make on their own.

Paperwork.  There's a lot of it.  Fear of litigation is, strangely enough, far more pervasive in UK academia than in the US.  Paperwork is how you prove that a decision was made by a committee, following approved procedures.  Also, it's what the upper management values.  And upper management calls the shots.

* Hierarchy.  In the US, each faculty member is more or less "their own boss", coming together when needed to make collective decisions relevant to the department as a whole.  This helps to create an egalitarian workplace ethos that I greatly value.  UK academia is not like this.  The "Head of Department" is authorized by the university administration to unilaterally make important decisions (possibly in consultation with select colleagues serving in certain management/administrative roles).  The HoD is explicitly your boss.  You're made to feel a lot more like a cog in the corporate hierarchy rather than an equal member of an academic community.  At least, that was my experience.  No doubt how grating one finds this in practice will depend a great deal upon the specific personalities involved.  But the difference in "management structure" is something to be aware of.

One result of this hierarchy, together with the generally greater power that departmental management exerts over every aspect of your working life, is that junior academics are much more vulnerable to workplace bullying in the UK.  Hostile or otherwise uncollegial behaviour can be difficult to deal with anywhere, of course, but I've personally found it easier to "bracket" such experiences when in a US context, where you're generally able to be more self-directed.

* Undergraduate recruitment. UK departments are directly responsible for maintaining their budgets by recruiting new undergraduate students. This can feel a bit mercenary, and lead to an excessive focus on "customer satisfaction".  ("Somebody might complain!" is a perennial objection to proposed changes, and usually considered decisive.)

* Metric-chasing: due to the above, UK departments are obsessed with the "league table" rankings that influence student enrollments.  These in turn are largely determined by student satisfaction scores (hence the customer satisfaction focus) and the REF (Research Excellence Framework), which is too complicated to describe here but provides a (highly imperfect) way for administrators to quantify a department's "research output".  There's a lot of pressure on departments to produce good REF scores.  REF preparation typically includes attempts within a department to rate colleagues' published work (on a 4-point scale), which can be awkward.

Conclusion: I find it pretty hard to imagine a better job than that of a (tenured or tenure-track) academic in the US.  Sure, grading can be a pain, but overall you have a huge amount of autonomy to research and teach about the topics you find most interesting, in whatever way you judge best.  Before moving there, I hadn't realized that working conditions would be so different for academics in the UK. (Americans considering UK job offers may also find this old discussion thread on Leiter's blog eye-opening.)  I'd be curious to hear more from academics in other countries (esp. Australia and Canada) whether their workplaces more closely resemble the US or the UK model -- or something completely different?


  1. Thanks. This is very interesting and I largely agree with your comments on the downsides of UK academia, as someone who has worked here for 7 of my 8 active years.

    2 corrections, however

    1. Presentations and participation grades aren't banned. I have used them both. More recently a rubric was produced for non standard assessment, that seems fair enough.
    2. You state that HoDs have power, but that's not true everywhere. I think it's more common for power to be located at the school or faculty level rather than department. I think this is one of the worst features of UK academia and its getting worse both for decision making and accountability.

  2. I'm surprised that you suggest the hierarchy issue is worse in the UK! I've just moved back to the UK from the US and have been discussing this particular issue a lot with people, and pretty much everyone I've spoken to has agreed that UK academic culture is far more egalitarian. I'm thinking here not about the mechanics of how a department is organised, but rather the way that people treat each other and the general environment. A lot of that, I think, is to do with the absence of the tenure system. Hierarchy and bullying is simply impossible to "bracket" if you're an untenured faculty member reliant on the votes of senior colleagues just in order to keep your job. That said, of course, I'm only drawing on limited information.

    1. Sorry, for some reason my name doesn't seem to appear above - I'm Max Hayward from Sheffield.

  3. I suppose a lot of this is relative. I feel like my position at a US school involves quite a lot of metric-chasing (at least on the teaching side) and pressure over recruitment, but perhaps it's worse in the UK.

  4. What you say about philosophy is similar for law in Australia (probably for philosophy, too, though I can't say for sure.) The extreme levels of bureaucracy and paternalism, the over-the-top top-down way things are run, and the resulting much lower level of academic freedom are very bad.

    Even the "hire directly to a permanent position" is a bit less clear, and it's not common (though not impossible) for someone to be hired to a permanent position w/o having done some post-docs or contract positions first, so a good deal of the "tenure track" is just spent in temporary positions.

  5. The Head of Department can also be a force for good. I worked for a while in a School of Law whose Head explicitly saw his role as enabling his colleagues to get on with teaching and research without worrying about the latest ideas senior management had dreamt up. Not coincidentally, there was a real sense of equality and collegiality among the academics, right down to very junior & precarious me. Unfortunately Head of School was a rotating role, and the next Head saw his role in more conventional terms - he was less an umbrella to shield the rest of us from management ukases, more a conduit to direct them more effectively down our necks. (Which has also been my experience of every other HoD I've worked under since then.)

    I think it's the powerlessness of the teaching role, in particular, that gets to me. Simply, teaching staff are held responsible both for the level of attainment of students on 'their' modules, and for students' self-assessed satisfaction with teaching. On one hand, grade inflation is more or less guaranteed; 2.ii is the new Third. Some students fall below even that level, but it's not feasible to fail very many people, even for large-scale plagiarism; and handing out bare pass marks needs to be done with circumspection in case it affects your 'figures'. Meanwhile, anything that might alienate, challenge or bore students - any students, even temporarily - is a no-no, as this is likely to affect your 'scores'. We resort to near-Maoist levels of self-abasement, asking students mid-term if there's anything - anything at all - we might not be doing to their satisfaction, anything we can improve in any way at all. There's no way to excel, other than being 'popular' - the requirements for which aren't a million miles from those of being 'popular' at school.

    Still, the hours are very flexible and I get to work from home a lot of the time (I share an office with two other people, which isn't conducive to getting any writing done, let alone reading).

    1. Love the "shield" vs "conduit" metaphors for different leadership styles. That shielding HoD sounds like a hero!

  6. You do not enter a graduate program in philosophy in the United States if you have to pay tuition. You need, at least, a full waiver of tuition. Although it is interesting to hear philosophy faculty discuss their work environments, it isn't that interesting. What is more interesting is how many young people are ripped off financially by many of these bullshit philosophy graduate programs.

  7. [A reader emailed in the following comment:]

    Most of this analysis is spot on. At least it comports with my experience moving to the UK from the US. However, I want to present a relatively general critique - the formal pronouncements and policies are in practice much less invasive and distrustful than they appear at first glance. For example, the second marking, which I initially found to be an insult to my academic judgment has been extremely light touch. And even when there has been a disagreement, if I really want to take a stand, I can and nobody has minded. And this has been true of other things, including non-standard assignments. After observing my colleagues, many of them pay lip service to various admin rhetoric, like "enhancing customer satisfaction", and then do whatever they want in practice. The OP is underappreciating the lack of tenure denial as an enforcement mechanism. What "pressure" can anyone put on you to produce 4* research if they cannot deny you tenure? As Vaclav Havel said, live as if you are free. Also, if you think that people are not evaluating other people's research (whether it is as 4* or "top quality" or whatever) in the US then your experience is very different from mine.

    I think that a lot of the problems and feelings of umbrage when people in admin positions don't respect my autonomy actually came from not knowing the real rules and taking the formally stated rules to be the real rules. An analogy for someone going to the US from the UK might be being told that your job is 1/3 teaching, 1/3 research and 1/3 admin when in fact you are getting tenure only on your research and whether people like you (at an R1 say). Or, as I was told in the US, that final grades are due 48 hours after the final exam, when in fact faculty routinely submit final grades after Christmas. So, I think that one way out of the culture-shock when coming to the UK is to discover what the real rules are, which likely vary by institution quite considerably.

    - Anon

    1. This sounds like generally good advice. Though worth noting that other forms of "pressure" include control over future promotions, research leave, and (perhaps most significantly for some of us) good old-fashioned social pressure: disapproval, insults, etc. can make for a very unpleasant working environment!

  8. With regard to Canada and Australia, Canada is closer to the US and Australia to the UK. (One big difference between Canada and the US is that operating grants are more readily available in Canada, though not generally teaching buy-outs.)

    Two questions about autonomy:

    Are departments sometimes merged with other disciplines in the UK? A complaint I've often heard from Australian colleagues is that because of merged multi-discipline departments, hiring committees are often appointed from other disciplines, and sometimes use criteria that philosophers find inappropriate. Same goes for Heads of Department. Is this really a problem in Australia? What about the UK?

    And another: We hear a lot about interference from Deans and HR departments etc in both the US and UK. (See recent discussions about violations of academic freedom, non-academic screening criteria, etc.) Is this really a problem in the US? What about the UK? (Happy to report that this is not generally a problem in Canada.)

  9. I was educated, but never employed, in American academia. (I taught a couple American courses as a grad student.) I have worked in the British and Canadian systems. Your description of the UK matches my impression very well. I was surprised in the US to be offered responsibility for classrooms with practically no training or oversight at all; after getting used to that, I was even more surprised in the UK, with much more professional standing, to have my final exam questions rejected by the departmental exam board (before the start of the term!) and to have colleagues who hadn't attended any of my classes changing my students' essay grades.

    Canada seems to be relatively similar to the US, at least with respect to these British contrasts. (Our terms are about halfway between typical British lengths and typical American ones.)

  10. I've never worked in the US, so can't make the comparison, but I thought I'd comment on a couple of aspects of UK academia.

    Some of the things mentioned above are accurate but it's not clear to me that they are bad: if you want a "three strikes and you're out" policy on plagiarism, for instance, you need some way of keeping track of instances across different teachers. And moderation of marking is (as above) very light touch, and seems right insofar as moderators standardly only consider changing the absolute marks of sets of work (e.g. +2 to everything), not individual essays or their ranks relative to one another: this makes perfect sense if you need to ensure that everyone is calibrated on the 0-100 scale in the same way.

    Other things above strike me as potentially misleading, or at best localised to specific departments. In my experience, assessments tasks need not be fixed or standardised at a departmental level, participation grades are permitted, oral presentations are common, and changing your syllabus mid-term is fine although changing assessments tasks is not. The description of deparmental hierarchies is utterly unfamiliar to me.

    1. Thanks Alex, good to hear that some of these problems aren't applicable everywhere in the UK!

  11. [Another reader emails:]

    This post rings so true. Every time I get nostalgic about British academia I remember some of the *massive* disadvantages of the system there. The fact that not only are exams and essays double-marked, but in most UK institutions all 3rd year students write c10,000 word dissertations that *all* have to be double-marked (most degrees are Hons degrees hence compulsory dissertations). The comments here about lack of autonomy are therefore spot on, and since I moved to the US over 8 years ago I have not missed the team-taught bureaucracy-bound UK system where faculty members are caught between the Scylla of student satisfaction (the Student Experience, turning libraries into cafes and building luxury accommodation) and the Charybdis of constant REF anxiety.

    One other massive, massive factor here is the expectations for the constant writing of grant applications. It is rare in my experience that a UK department considers the broad approach when submitting for the REF: it could be that some of us are better at writing papers or books than grant applications. But increasingly, the one big positive of the UK system - that junior colleagues enter without tenure pressures - are negated by the heavy-handed department managers who will only promote you if you bring in funding according to a nominally agreed level of the area (arts, sciences, or humanities). This means some of my UK academic friends and former colleagues have been stuck in grant-writing hell, still with the expectation of having to publish 4* papers and books too. Several friends have decided to 'not care too much' about their jobs any more, having worked far too hard and far too late into the night, only to realize that grant success - which now largely determines future promotion possibilities - is now more to do with luck and whatever trends or themes the UK Research Councils decide is topical, rather than hard-won expertise and intellectual competence.

    (Since 2002 I've taught Philosophy, Cultural Studies, and Human Geography in the UK, and then from 2016 Sociology in the US).

    - Anon.

  12. I appreciate your initiating this conversation Richard - two major points:
    1. While there may be some value in apples to apples comparisons between the US and the UK, there's far more variation in the kinds of institutions in the US, which really complicates things. There are very few two-year colleges in the UK and far fewer institutions equivalent to US regional state universities in the UK. (Teaching 8-10 courses per year as permanent staff is common at US community colleges and teaching-oriented schools.) A greater proportion of UK institutions have post-baccalaureate programs. Add in the large role of private institutions in the US, and the comparative decentralization (public universities in California are a different animal than those in, say, Arkansas). Perhaps your conclusion is true at *the top levels* of US and UK academia, but I'm skeptical about any broader generalizations.
    2. Not a criticism of comments so far, but the discussion has been rather faculty-centered. Could there be pedagogical benefits to the greater standardization and lesser autonomy that UK instructors have? I believe in academic freedom but doubt that it extends to the right to teach badly. Might the greater freedom of US instructors have downsides from the student perspective, such as wide variations in grading standards, teaching quality, and learning goals?

    1. 1. Fair point!

      2. I'd expect "standardized" teaching to result in more mediocre results overall, reducing variance in both the negative and positive directions. (I also suspect that the standardization hurts more than it helps, but that's just an intuition based on the possibly-optimistic assumption that most of us want to do a good job in our teaching!)


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