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‘The splendours and miseries’ of Australian academics

With a population of just over 21 million, Australia is one of the leading Nobel Prize–winning countries in per capita terms. In October, the Australian National University congratulated its Prof. Brian P. Schmidt from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Adam G. Riess and Saul Perlmutter “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”. It is the first time in almost 100 years that an Australian has won a Nobel Prize for Physics, prompting the Prime Minister to declare that “It is another day on which Aussie researchers make Australians proud”.

Yet, just one week prior to the celebratory announcement, the University of Melbourne's Centre for the Study of Higher Education had published a compelling report highlighting the patterns of academic work in Australia, commissioned by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Conducted across 20 universities with a total of 5 525 responses from Australian academics, the study is titled The Australian Academic Profession in Transition, and exposes the challenges of academic work and the career trajectory in the country.

The key findings of this newest research (in close alignment with a similar study undertaken by the Australian Council for Educational Research and the Centre for the Study of Higher Education) can be summarised as follows. The Australian academic landscape is challenged by an ageing academic workforce, and lacks the capacity to refresh, build and maintain this workforce during a period of expansion in tertiary education participation. Although Australian academics identify themselves as being highly motivated, many feel overwhelmed with existing workloads and find their work a source of considerable personal stress. Early career staff is likely to be dissatisfied with job security and income, and are particularly concerned about the prospects of accessing secure and well-remunerated positions down the road. Substantial proportions of respondents have medium to long-term intentions (i.e. within the next five to ten years) to move either to another Australian institution, or to an overseas institution, or leave the higher education sector all together. The intention to leave Australian higher education is highest among the younger age groups. In sentiments probably echoed on other continents, the most common reasons have to do with issues of job security, remuneration levels, lack of research funding, and discontent with the institutional or sectoral culture. The report comes up with specific recommendations, which call for increased stability in national higher education policy, more support for early-career researchers, the conversion of more short-term contract staff to longer-term positions and other measures.

The Australian National University Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Centre for the Study of Higher Education The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade