Have ‘young academics’ been betrayed?

We need to stand up for early career researchers, says Catherine Fletcher

August 31, 2015

There’s been some frustration on Twitter with Mathew Lyons’ piece: Young academics: the great betrayal.

Commenters have taken exception, in particular, to the suggestions that many academics disdain teaching (which I agree is unfair) and that they don’t support early career colleagues. The temptation is, though, to point to structural problems as if academics bear no responsibility for those at all.

The fact is, however, that there have been possibilities to resist the structural change that has got us where we are. Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at a Russell Group university, we had tutorial groups of six and from the first year my tutorials were run by permanent academic staff. Very occasionally they were delegated to a PhD student, but that was the exception.

Now (outside Oxbridge) it’s rare to find tutorial groups of fewer than 10, and teaching by doctoral students is the norm at first-year level. I don’t have the data to hand to make that more than an anecdotal point but I doubt many people would argue with it.

So it’s reasonable to ask, I think, whether those in a position to resist that change did enough, and whether there’s more we might do now.

I’m sure that many of the objectors to Mathew’s argument were the person in the departmental meeting who said – when it was announced that the department must take x per cent additional students with no additional staff – that this was unacceptable.

Perhaps they went on demonstrations against tuition fees, or wrote to MPs, or lobbied within their universities. They may well have been the people, too, who went to their University and College Union branch meeting and said that we need a strategy to tackle the increasing dependence on casualised staff to deliver teaching. And it’s good that they did those things.

But I do think that there is a case to be made – in general – that there’s been more throwing up of hands in horror at the incremental shifts towards increased precarity in higher education work than practical resistance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a serious industrial dispute in the university sector over job security for early career staff.

Yet there are many practical things that might be done. Here’s one suggestion: a consortium of universities (such bodies already exist to deliver doctoral training and for various other purposes) might hire early career academics on the basis that they’ll be guaranteed permanent work in one of the partner institutions, even if it isn’t the one where they start out.

That’s how many large companies operate – with the expectation that in the first few years of work you might switch base – and they seem to manage it perfectly well. Such a system would give departments some flexibility while allowing early career researchers to plan their lives better than they can on a succession of nine-month teaching contracts. It would shift some of the risk away from the individual on to the institutional group.

The practicalities would take some working out, and it’s certainly not all I’d wish for in the long term, but perhaps as well as lamenting our betrayal we should start talking about solutions and how we might campaign for them. After all, if we don’t fight, we can’t win.

From September, Catherine Fletcher will be associate professor in history and heritage at Swansea University. This article was originally posted on 25 August on her own blog.

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Reader's comments (2)

The despicable stance of Vice Chancellors and higher University management as the "willing executioners' of this policy should also be condemned. In order to secure their knighthoods these people have betrayed the universities they were hired to defend, and gleefully sacked staff and made unadvertised appointments. I trust Professor Fletcher will find the time to discuss the role of the RAE/REF in destroying academic values and academic solidarities, and betraying the next generation.
One part of the shift described here was due to the expansion of higher education, without an accompanying expansion in core funding. Another is that institutions, as they expanded, also produced many more people with PhDs - many more than could be employed within the sector. (This is not to argue that PhD training only leads to academia; see jobsontoast.com for good thoughts on this). Catherine Fletcher's suggestion re consortium hiring is interesting - but it would need to be noted that large companies also sack their workers when they perceive they are overprovsioned, rather more easily than universities sack faculty... Two alternative suggestions: the UCU works to ban 9-month contracts; universities embed some 'other career track' training and support into their existing PhD programmes.

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