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Students put hurdle in academic rat race

Most academics are frustrated 'Rats'. This, according to a study presented to the Scottish Educational Research Association, is why they are so anxious, depressed and obsessional. They would be happier if there were not so many students around, writes Donald MacLeod.

The result of academics being locked into the university version of the rat race is a higher than normal level of psychoneurotic illness, Pam Smith of Strathclyde University told the association's annual conference at St Andrews.

Academic staff at three Scottish universities were tested for psychological disturbance and proneness to error and absent-mindedness, and asked to report the details of stressful daily problems. Work overload and administrative tasks were the main complaints, but the study also found that they were anxious about their research - or the lack of it.

The academics were classified as: RATs, whose main activity was research, followed by administration and teaching; TARs, who spent more time teaching; and ARTs, whose main activity was administration.

Ms Smith and Professor Shirley Fisher, of Strathclyde's Centre for Occupational and Health Psychology, found that while a quarter of their subjects were classified as Rats, 70 per cent of them wanted to be doing research instead of teaching or administration.

'The worry levels associated with research are extremely high. Research activity may be the fuse wire in the system. It is difficult to find time to carry out research, evoking high levels of worry,' Ms Smith said.

Most academics enjoy their research - that is why they are there - but their career structure also depends on it. Published papers, however obscure, count for more than good teaching. The trend towards departments and universities which are teaching- only will not improve matters.

A follow-up study of Strathclyde University staff showed they were almost all disillusioned with the university and some were 'extremely depressed', Ms Smith said. Her conference paper was greeted by one fellow academic with a robust 'Aw, diddums'. But Ms Smith is under some academic stress herself. In two weeks' time her contract as a research assistant finishes, leaving her jobless.