Science and Society

NZ's increasing academic shortage

I was most interested to read this article in the ODT today.
It talks about the University of Otago’s plans to futureproof (what a catchphrase) itself against what, apparently, is a steadily increasing shortage of tertiary academics in New Zealand as we head towards 2020.
The University says it’s already seen shortages in areas including medical research/teaching and accountancy.
This to some extent makes sense based on what I’ve heard anecdotally about academics finding NZ a tough country in which to work. However, speaking with other scientists I’ve also heard that many other countries are hardly easy, either. The article also says:

“The collaborative planning initiative, which involves all eight New Zealand universities, aimed to prevent a future staffing shortage throughout the country’s universities as traditional overseas sources for academic staff dried up at the same time as a large proportion of New Zealand’s current academic staff was retiring.

“The universities were all concerned that as New Zealand moved towards 2020, they would face significant difficulties in maintaining an effective and efficient academic workforce.”

So I guess my question is: is this something that people are seeing and if so, in which areas have you experienced it?
And what can be done?
And, indeed, is anyone involved in the Academic Workforce Planning - Towards 2020 (8 universities looking into how to combat the problem) project?
  • Robert McCormick

    As someone finishing his PhD does this mean there are likely to be lots of job opportunities?

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    It kinda makes it sound that way, doesn’t it?

    So, based on the concerns I’ve heard about the competitive funding system here, might it become a situation of the jobs are available, but people don’t want them?

    Dunno…comments, anyone?

  • Brendan Moyle

    I think one of the problems with an academic career now, is that it doesn’t have the quality-of-life it used to. If I recall correctly, in the UK the average academic spends about 50% of their time now on admin tasks. That’s up from the 10-20% it used to be 20 years ago. I suspect NZ is similar to this (who else is thinking PBRF?).

    Rather than doing research or teaching, there’s just a lot more other tasks that have got dumped onto academics. Now, instead of getting a paper memo to respond to say once per week, I get several requests a day, all wanting more information and more consideration.

    Where there are attractive jobs outside academia, I suspect the bind is going to get worse. Investing 8-10 years of your career to go from Bachelor’s degree to PhD is a big call, especially when the private sector can trump academic salaries easily.

  • Robert McCormick

    But the funding is competitive in most places, I have heard from US health researchers that getting big R01 (I think) grants from NIH is like hen’s teeth - much harder than HRC or Marsden stuff here. That and the US is producing far more PhD’s especially in physics/astronomy than they can ever employ in academic positions.

  • Hilary Miller

    I’m kind of astonished to hear Universities complaining about potential staff shortages and not being able to attract new academics (I heard a similar thing on RNZ in the last few days), because in my experience of looking for a permanent position for at least 3 years, they are simply not advertising any positions! There hasn’t been a single permanent position in my field advertised at any NZ university for over a year now, and at my University the preference seems to be to hire back staff as part-time contractors when they retire, rather than taking on new permanent staff. I know of lots of postdocs around NZ who have been employed on short contracts for years and would make great academics, but are never given the opportunity. I think this is really a funding issue - maybe when the Universities say “we are going to have staff shortages”, what they really mean is that they don’t have the money to take on any new staff, not that there are not any potential academics out there.

  • kiwiski

    I agree 100% with you Hilary - I’ve been the unemployed PhD and it is extremely frustrating.
    Uni Otago needs to put $ into career paths to keep the few academics it has. Sir Peter Gluckman recently called the time after the first post-doc or two the “valley of death.” Publishing is not longer enough to keep you employed - you must also get research grants to pay your own salary along with a massive (over 100% overhead) for the universities. Perhaps reducing this requirement is one place they could start.

  • Shaun Hendy

    One of the differences between our funding system and comparable systems overseas is that our funding is full cost recovery. A scientist in the US is typically competing for the marginal costs of doing their research, not their salary. A CRI scientist in New Zealand is competing for their job. This is one of the reasons why our system is often described as highly competitive, and disliked by many who participate in it.

  • Grant Jacobs

    I’m with Hilary on this. I went out on my own mainly because I couldn’t see them (Otago) “making” a position for me, and partly because I prefer to be doing hands-on work.

    kiwiski, by “reducing this requirement”, do you mean, the overheads?

    Shaun is right about the “competing for their job” aspect. I’ll add that of the research-only staff at universities it’s only the senior staff (e.g. Professors) that have salaried incomes, all the other research-only staff are on “soft” money. My impression is that it’s safer for the teaching staff, but then I don’t ask people about their salaries, not really the done thing, etc.

    Food for thought for fun: if you think trying to live off grants is hard, try working as an independent scientist…! :-)

  • Keith Sircombe

    Further to Brendan’s point, have a look at this article by Andrew Trounson in ‘The Australian’ today about other management cultural factors potentially driving away academics:,25197,26153706-12332,00.html

    “AUSTRALIA’S academics are disillusioned by corporate management cultures at universities, threatening to drive many away from the profession and worsen a looming staff shortage as thousands of them approach retirement.”

    Also includes an interesting discussion about the impact of ‘casualisation’ of academia and the difficulties that causes in creating an attractive employment environment.

  • drmike

    Lets face it, most of us did science because we enjoy it and believe it contributes to humanity, which allowed us (for a time at least) to overlook the uncertainty that can come with a science career.
    It might sound cynical but I can always wary of acedmics who complain about not having enough PhD students. In many cases they are more worried about getting more outputs, and don’t think too much about what the students job prospects are. Having said that, I also know there are some great PhD supervisors who go out of their way to help their students and postdocs find jobs.
    Where I do see opportunities for those of us trained in science are in government and management positions where we can support pro-science ideas. Some academics might sneer at PhD’s doing “nonscientific” work but in the long run I think this has merit.
    Also, I think scientists need to start working together more to challenge the government more and to communicate the value of science to the public more. We already have some leaders in this area, such as Paul Callaghan and Peter Gluckman but I believe more is needed. There is some truth in that dealing with groups of scientists can be like herding cats :-) but I think a concerted effort to present science effectively is important

  • Brendan Moyle

    I think another problem with planning on (and committing to) a PhD is the employment market is shifting around a lot more. It’s become a lot more volatile. PhD is a relatively long term decision. The job market has started to make big jumps within this time frame.

    It’s become a lot easier to make a ‘education mistake’ and end up looking for a job that has moved on since you started (didn’t something similar happen in the 1970s when marine biology was what all the cool kids did, and there was a virtual flooding of the market). I made the ‘mistake’ of doing a very traditional zoology/ecology programme, which by 1991 was looking very risky. Recession and restructuring had caused public sector jobs to collapse (heck, I remember biology PhD’s starting to work for DoC at $25k a year then), and the private sector wanted people who could ‘clone dinosaurs’. (All the cool kids did genetics, not zoology).