Academic meritocracy is not academic fairness

Traditional metrics neglect the systematic barriers faced by individuals with various oppressed axes of identity, says Shan-Jan Sarah Liu

September 17, 2022
A black woman at the bottom of a ladder with highly spaced rungs, symbolising inequality
Source: iStock

When academics apply for promotions, they know that the answer might be, “Thank you, but wait another year or two to apply”. Both academic applicants and promotion committee members seem to believe that decisions are fair while the promotion process remains opaque (despite calls for clear matrices and transparency).

That is, they believe that decisions are based on merit, manifested in factors such as quality and quantity of publications and success in procuring external funding. Yet in the modern, neoliberal university, managers neglect the systematic barriers faced by individuals with various oppressed axes of identity.

Meritocracy seems fair because it subjects every academic’s accomplishments to the same level of scrutiny. However, academics who come from academic families – largely white and wealthy – are 25 times more likely than the general population to have a parent with a PhD, as a study published last week confirmed. These second- or third-generation academics are likely to have absorbed the basics of how to be successful academics before they even start graduate school, saving them valuable time and energy that they are able to devote to directly demonstrating their merits instead.

Being on secure, permanent contracts also makes individuals better able to enhance their merits. Able-bodied academics can travel to conferences to present their work and establish networks with other leading scholars. Cisgender and heterosexual academics rarely have to deal with transphobic and homophobic discourses and treatments at their workplace in the name of freedom of expressionAcademic freedom offers greater protection to white academics, who also do not face the double whammy in promotion and pay gaps.

Privileged academics also accrue more recognisable prestige because others who share similar privileges might be more willing to recognise them and their work as worthy of esteem. This support further enhances their prestige, creating a virtuous cycle of prestige factors.

Contrariwise, the less privileged face a cumulative cycle of disadvantages. They must prove their merits in institutions designed to knock them down and keep them out. They lack the privilege to avoid low-prestige, unpaid labour that does not enable them to demonstrate merit. For example, many women academics of colour serve as mentors, particularly for students of colour. This labour is crucial to addressing the heavy under-representation of racial minorities in most Western higher education sectors, yet it is largely unallocated in workload models and, thus, remains institutionally undervalued.

Similarly, a higher proportion of women academics carry caring responsibilities than men do, limiting their ability to fulfil the expectations on academics to travel abroad for conferences to promote their work, exchange scholarly ideas and establish professional networks. The pandemic only worsened these inequalities as women spent significantly more time on household chores and caring responsibilities than men did.

Meanwhile, fixed-term teaching staff carry the heavy weight of teaching; 75 per cent of US faculty are adjuncts. Not only are they hired to teach, they are also expected to develop teaching programmes and curricula, supervise and mentor students, advise student clubs, and conduct research – the last of which is the key to promotion. Moreover, fixed-term teaching staff hold precarious positions, putting their physical and mental health under constant challenge as they are confronted with cost-of-living and housing crises, constraining their academic achievements.

All these examples illustrate that meritocracy exacerbates pre-existing inequalities. The commonly assumed “level playing field” is not so level after all. Universities do not promote solely on the basis of true ability: privilege also plays a significant role.

Thus, I call for the higher education sector to move away from undifferentiated systems of performance evaluation, which treat everyone with absolute superficial equality. Structural barriers need to be examined to understand how minoritised academics can be included and lifted. Only that way will they have the genuine opportunity to rise from the bottom of the academic hierarchy on the basis of their true merits.

Shan-Jan Sarah Liu is senior lecturer in gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh

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Reader's comments (7)

It is an excellent analysis, and points out certain inequalities in academia very well! The point that meritocracy is not fair, is also an old truth that applies to academia too. However, I am afraid the current system will be very difficult to change significantly. Univerisities (as any other organisation) reward those 'achievements' that are relevant for the organisation. For instance, 'quality and quantity of publications and success in procuring external funding' are relevant because they generate income, increase prestige and thus improve the quality the students who apply etc. If a university wants to be ahead of its competitors, it will push its workforce to achieve those metrics that it is believed to generate advantage and will use these metrics to hire and promote academics. Some members of the workforce will always be in better place than others to achieve these metrics, especially because of the factors Sarah Liu pointed out extremely well. Thus, the 'undifferentiated systems of performance evaluation, which treat everyone with absolute superficial equality' is not about the employees but about what the university as an organisation wants to achieve. And the university rewards those ones who contribute the most to its goals. Therefore, I am afraid there will always be limitations how much universities will take into consideration the disadvantages of different academics.
Why don't we just acknowledge that meritocracy is a myth (, and accept that success is mostly due to luck. This would mean that those who are successful are a bit more compassionate towards those less lucky and the less lucky will not feel that they did not work hard enough. This would also mean that differentiation in salaries and working conditions would become bearable, after all the vice chancellor only has his/her position due to good luck.
Academia is a cut throat business and that suits the managers very well. They use the REF, TEF and KEF to control academics and keeping them busy. In the meantime the managers have nothing like such a ruthless set of metrics to meet and the incompetent can easily get excellent pay while doing very little work. It is amazing how bright academics have allowed such a system emerge. The academics used to run UK universities but now it is the admin and bureaucrats that have the power and control the resources which they over-allocate to themselves. The lawyers have it much better, they control their organisations and get most of the rewards while employing admin types and managers as and when required.
This case was made more strongly in the 1950s and 1960s. Why can't today's "researchers" bother to look? Start with Michael Young in 1958
This case was made more strongly in the 1950s and 1960s. Why can't today's "researchers" bother to look? Start with Michael Young in 1958
So by the same token we should apply this "logic" to sports? Give a couple of seconds head start to white athletes in running-type sports, or lower the basket because they cannot jump as high as the black athletes. The great grandfather was "privileged". Amazing logic
'Academics from academic families are more likely to have a parent with a PhD'. Well, I would never have guessed. That researcher must have had an academic in their family to help.