ECRs are tired of being endlessly told what they can do better

No matter how hard they work, thousands will be dumped out of the labour market during the pandemic, say Harry Pettit and Alexandra Dales

October 11, 2020
A woman packs her things after being fired
Source: iStock

The UK government’s new Job Support Scheme may save some UK jobs but it will do little for thousands of early career researchers (ECRs) already cast aside in the financial chaos caused by Covid-19.

Even before the pandemic, ECRs finishing PhDs were confronted with a highly competitive labour market. It was considered ordinary to spend years struggling on short-term contracts as universities funnelled through record numbers of doctoral students with little consideration of the discrepancy with the number of permanent academic jobs available.

But Covid-19 has torn apart this already unjust labour market. As early career representatives of the Royal Geographical Society’s Economic Geography Research Group, we have heard countless stories of UK ECRs being pushed into perilous situations.

Much of this unprecedented crisis for early career researchers can be traced to the government’s refusal to offer universities a bailout in early May. By the time a state rescue package for research-intensives was announced at the end of June – albeit offering loans, not grants – it was too late.

Many universities had already announced hiring freezes, with jobs advertised before the pandemic suddenly delayed by several months or cancelled altogether. Many lecturers who had been on rolling temporary contracts for years, delivering large amounts of teaching, were told with little notice that they would be made redundant as teaching was shifted on to permanent staff and module choices were reduced.

Some universities even justified these redundancies to ECRs through a belated commitment to end insecure employment practices. This is both wrong and insulting to people who feel they have been simply discarded after giving so much to departmental teaching at the expense of the research that will get them jobs further down the line.

This frustration has been compounded in recent weeks by the news that dystopian predictions about student numbers have not come to fruition in many institutions. Instead, a worrying trend has been the emergence of even more casualised part-time or course-by-course contracts to cover last-minute teaching need.

Even those ECRs with months to run on their fixed-term research contracts have been affected. Many were unable to continue their projects because of Covid-related restrictions, especially but not only those involving overseas fieldwork. However, they were denied access to the UK government’s furlough scheme due to being “government funded” and have found it almost impossible to get costed extensions from grant bodies.

As a result, recent months have produced a mass of unemployed ECRs, some of whom have been forced out of their homes, unable to afford rent and living costs. All ECRs dread the intensified competition that the other side of the pandemic is likely to bring, as all those discarded researchers fight for the still very small number of jobs that are likely to become available.

Many ECRs have received advice in recent months from mentors and peers about how to ride out this storm. “Just keep publishing and attending conferences,” they are told. “Don’t forget about other disciplines. Have you looked beyond academia?” While well-intentioned, such advice can be difficult to stomach for people who have worked tirelessly for years to keep themselves afloat, but now find themselves stranded.

ECRs are tired of endlessly being told what they can do better when they know that the reason for their struggles lies beyond their control. No matter how hard they work during this period, thousands will be dumped out of the labour market because of the pre-existing structural issues with that market.

In the UK, a bottom-up movement is emerging, which includes campaigns such as the University and College Union-led Corona Contract project and localised action at Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Liverpool. But ECRs crave and need more support from those in positions of power. This support must prioritise providing secure jobs.

Permanent staff can express solidarity by declining invitations to speak at universities that do not support contingent staff and by asking their line managers a set of questions devised by staff at Queen Mary University of London to challenge the termination of contracts. They can also incorporate budgets for researchers on applications, while funders can prioritise those who are unemployed or underemployed for new grants, and university departments can commit in writing to awarding contracts to successful grant applicants.

To support ECRs facing unemployment, it is heartening to see some resources being redirected towards hardship funds – more of this is needed. Universities can also help without incurring a heavy financial commitment by offering ECRs visiting or honorary fellow status to ensure they have an affiliation and access to resources.

Academic journals can also help by prioritising publications from ECRs. But we need recognition that productivity cannot continue as normal. Hiring committees must acknowledge unequal productivity gaps in CVs, as well as be more open to remote working. They also need to make the hiring process as respectful and kind as possible: at present, too many ECRs fail to hear back, or have to deal with insensitive feedback from departments whose jobs they have invested so much time and emotional energy into applying for.

A re-evaluation is long overdue of the employment practices that render ECR life a roulette wheel. We must reintroduce dignity into an academic sector that has become driven exclusively by the inhuman demands of the market.

Harry Pettit is research associate in reimagining economies at Newcastle University. Alexandra Dales is a lecturer in business and management at York St John University.

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