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What’s Wrong With Academia 4

By: , Posted on: January 2, 2019

Then there is the anomalous position of university administrators. From the day I started work as an engineer to the day I started work as an Associate Professor, I never once used a photocopier, booked a hotel room, or purchased a flight ticket for business travel. Back when I started work as an engineer, we didn’t even do our own typing. We had these people called administrators, assistants, things like that. They assisted us, with our administrative tasks.

Confusingly, universities have people with the same job title, but they don’t help you- you help them. By “help them”, I mean you do their jobs for them as well as your own, adding to your workload and giving you yet another strand of line management.

It’s not that I’m too grand to do my own admin – it’s more a question of economics. Even as the most junior engineer, it was considered uneconomic to do such work when there were administrators on hand. In universities, however, all but the most distinguished of professors have to deal with enormous amounts of admin (although, in practice, anyone with research funds has flying monkeys which can be “persuaded” to take on unwanted admin and teaching duties).

Part of the difference is that university administrators are often some of the most highly paid people in the building, and I’m not just talking about those VCs whose exorbitant salaries have made the news in recent years. There are surprising numbers of middle and high ranking admin staff who earn more than the majority of lecturers. Whilst these ‘academic managers’ might have originally been meant to relieve some of the admin burden on academic staff, increasingly they are setting the agenda and inventing procedures which only add to the average academic’s workload and stress.

For example, I have worked in research-centric universities which employed administrators to evaluate the quality of teaching, so that a paper trail could be generated showing lip service had been paid to teaching quality. The more senior administrators were then tasked with ensuring the compliance of academic staff with the teaching QA procedures they had invented. As these administrators were not qualified in either engineering or teaching, they could only monitor compliance with university procedures. This kind of technical compliance is the enemy of excellence but the problems really started when the administrators also wrote the procedures, as is so often the case.

The academics end up with multiple bosses, each demanding excellence and more than their fair share of the contracted time. Everyone who takes their jobs at all seriously ends up working 150%+ of their contracted hours. Academics are under enormous pressure from their research boss to publish, but they are also pressured by their head of department and often an administrator working in educational QA to somehow achieve excellent student satisfaction scores and Goldilocks-style assessment outcomes which are neither “too high” or “too low”. Add to this a requirement to undertake additional admin duties such as meeting prospective students and parents, participating in outreach work, visiting students on placement, industry liaison and so on, and you have a job which requires administrators to support the role, rather than to add to the pressure.

Academics have a terrible job. They would have been much wiser to have become administrators. They mostly seem to spend the day chatting about their holidays as far as I can see, which might have something to do with the fact that administrators don’t seem to be dropping dead at 55 from heart attacks as so many academics do.

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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