A manifesto for early career researchers

Early career researchers are the ‘working class of higher education’, writes Elisabeth Julie Vargo  

October 9, 2017
Marx and Engels
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Marx and Engels

A while ago, eager to plan ahead my academic career, I attended a workshop aimed at empowering postdocs in their career development.

As I sat in a room full of disgruntled early career researchers on a typically rainy day in central London, I realised that we were not there to discuss our bright futures. A common theme slowly emerged from our chit-chat and eventually dominated our exchanges. What came about were countless tales of academic horror: we ECRs (I shall call us ECRs for this acronym sounds more employable) are too often systematically robbed of our means of academic production, and of the means necessary to thrive in the real world.

Senior management at universities develop knowledge capital through “scientific” discovery and degree certificates. To maintain the status quo and the upper hand, the academic capitalists chain up their workers with precarious working conditions and low wages. We have become the modern working class of higher education; a growing class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases the knowledge capital of their factory-universities.

Us ECRs, who must sell ourselves piecemeal, are a commodity, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market (and yes, you’ve heard this before).

Returning from my revolutionary reverie, I switch back to reality and realise it’s best not to share my communist similitudes with my peers. Yet I can’t help but see Marx and Engels’ interpretation of England’s industrial revolution in Britain’s marketing-savvy universities. If one looks beyond university and college brands, you can easily see that higher education today is not very different from the growing textile factories of England’s industrial revolution. 

Just like the proletarian class of the turn of the century, pauperised slaves of the capitalist system, the growing wave of early career researchers paradoxically detain the means of production (raw data and labour) but must endure an exploitative relationship with their managers (the bourgeoisie) to survive. As a result of the extensive appropriation of knowledge and merit, the work of the ECRs has lost all individual realisation.

The ECR becomes “an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack”, as the Communist Manifesto puts it. The need for universities to make up for government funds drying up has provided fertile ground for cut-throat practices and an ever more choking exploitation of knowledge. Something has broken in the way that science is being carried out.

Undoubtedly, ever since universities were shoved into the market, a process of reification of knowledge was initiated. The constant increase of its production, necessary for the survival of academic capitalism, and the centralised value of education in public management have fostered an environment in which a few detain the capital and the rewards of the university’s mass production, and many struggle to stay afloat. The redistribution of power and resources is necessary to re-establish peace and prosperity in academia.

So I ask: “What should be done, what can be done to save higher education and the ECR working class?”

Answer: the true liberation of knowledge. Knowledge and its merits should not be held by the individual because it belongs to the collective. For this reason, the work of the researcher should not be aimed at increasing the knowledge capital of the primary investigator, but at improving the life conditions of the collective.

It is time for researchers to open themselves to different ways of envisioning the distribution of resources, authority and power. Besides guaranteeing free access to datasets and knowledge, research funds could be redistributed according to principles of merit – rather than “research excellence” – especially considering that excellence is now defined through dubious metrics and lengthy bibliographies. 

Moreover, within this utopian mirage I also envision a research environment in which everyone is liable and everyone shares the data-collecting labour. Why is science so heavily impacted by hierarchy in academia? In this fast-paced world where technology leads us towards the future and ideas grow fast and die young, disciplinary experience loses value, and fluidity guarantees success. Why shouldn’t ECRs be given an active part in this collective mission and why should seniority be the reason for our failure?

It is high time that ECRs should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views and aims and meet these challenges with our own manifesto. Researchers of all countries, unite!

Elisabeth Julie Vargo is a research consultant.

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