Three-D Issue 24: Reflections on the changing nature and circumstances of academic labour

Bob FranklinBob Franklin
Cardiff University



Born in 1949, – a first wave ‘Baby Boomer’ – my generation has been nurtured on lashings of cod liver oil, orange juice, milk at school, high quality health care, social and welfare services, the anticipation of full employment plus a higher standard of living and longer life expectancy than our parents and, above all this, a free education at primary, secondary and even tertiary levels: a blessed and lucky generation.

Given this generational context, the views that I held when I bowled up for my first job in the Politics Department at York University in 1976, were perhaps fairly predictable. I believed very passionately (and still do) that Education should be organised as a public service rather than as a commodity for sale in a market place – education is quite simply ‘priceless’. I also shared the generational view of conservatives, social democrats and liberal politicians alike, – the famous Butskellite consensus – that education would prove a powerful engine of social mobility, corrosive in its effects on existing class structures.

But across my 4 decades working as a university teacher, academic life has changed markedly and some of these changes are at the heart of what I want to discuss here. I draw on personal recollections rather than the kinds of evidence which typically inform academic accounts; so this is my first stab at amateur auto-ethnography.

The changes I want to consider include, the shifting balance between teaching and research in academic life and, the creeping – then galloping – commercialism and the retreat from notions of public service in the academy.

My career, ‘brilliant’ or otherwise, reflects a brief post 1945 window of opportunity provided by an unprecedented amalgam of economic, political and sociocultural circumstances. That window is closing rapidly, if not firmly slammed shut, leaving those currently entering academic life, confronting a much bleaker landscape of academic opportunity, autonomy and freedom.


My Brilliant Career

But let’s start with a brief “Cook’s Tour” of my academic working life. It all began in the early 1950s when, aged four and a quarter, I went to the local primary school about 150 yards from my parents’ house. Here’s a picture of me at school with my sister when I was 7. It remains the only studio photograph of me taken to date, but in the mid 1950s paper shortages were so acute (as newspaper historians will confirm), that the photo was mounted on the back of an advert for orange squash.

In 1960, I passed the 11+ and attended the local grammar school. I left ahead of my 16th birthday, but in 1968 I enrolled at the local technical college where I surprised myself – and many others – by getting three A Levels. Then it was 6 years at Hull University for a degree in Politics and Sociology and a PhD in political theory supervised by Bhiku Parekh [an inspirational teacher and scholar].

By 1976 academic jobs were already scarce but I was lucky enough to be offered a post at York University. Two years later, I moved to Newcastle Polytechnic and in 1985 made a significant move to the Centre for Television Research at Leeds working with Jay Blumler. It was a hot house where I felt very much out of my depth. But Jay’s enthusiasm proved a great teacher and I learned a good deal about how to conduct and write up research, as well as how to enjoy it.

Between 1990 and 1994, I worked in the Politics Department at Keele, then on to Sheffield to help establish a new department of Journalism Studies, before moving to my current post as Chair in Journalism Studies at Cardiff. The School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies is a quite unique and wonderful place, awash with intellectual curiosity and energy, with ferociously bright colleagues across all generations. So I’ll close this Cook’s tour with photos of me in my office in Cardiff and offering my welcome to the fourth Future of Journalism Conference at Cardiff in 2013.

Changes in University Life since 1976

As I mentioned earlier, I want to consider two key changes to university life and briefly mention a third. The first involves the growing emphasis on research above teaching; the University’s insistence on certain kinds of research; along with the rather nightmarish levels of detailed monitoring of academics’ performance which this requires with the consequent loss of academic freedom.



When I first entered academic life in 1976, the kindly advice offered by senior colleagues at York, was that new entrants should prioritise teaching above research. Teaching was the unquestioned priority and there were good reasons for this.

Academic Courses – not modules – were taught across three terms (not two semesters) and lasted for 30 weeks. A progression of ideas, themes and academic complexity/or level were built into all degree programmes. Concern with quality verged on the obsessional; internal assessment meetings and external evaluation were routine. Academics delivered all lectures and seminars on their courses (there were no TAs), so teaching loads were relatively high, but groups were much smaller than today – typically 25 or so in lectures and 6-8 in seminars. The upside was that I got to know all my students very well; both academically and socially. Like the hapless Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’ campus novel Lucky Jim, I felt lucky to be ‘allowed’ into university life. Universities were expanding; a mood of radical optimism and change was ubiquitous. Life was fun; the first RAE was ten years away.



Across the subsequent decade, in the run up to that first RAE in 1986, we all became increasingly aware of a growing emphasis on research and publication; but this enhanced emphasis was modest. By way of example, it seems nothing less than extraordinary given current preoccupations that the very high impact research on televising Parliament, commissioned by the House of Commons and conducted by a leading international research centre – like The Centre for Television Research at Leeds – was not returned for the 1992 Assessment exercise. I can think of no better example to illustrate how low profile these audits of research were even in the early to mid-1990s.