Whether or not you’re entirely convinced by the figures on casualisation recently publicised by the UK’s University and College Union, it is beyond dispute that increasing numbers of PhD graduates are being forced into short-term, insecure work to sustain their academic careers. There simply are not enough permanent jobs out there for all those qualified to do them.
Rather than facilitating sustainable scholarly communities by hiring more permanent staff, universities – driven by managerialism and the bottom line – have opted to create vast pools of disposable academic labour.
But there are some who’d rather look at things the other way around: it’s not a problem of too few jobs, but rather too many PhDs. To safeguard new generations of academics from precarity, we need to limit the flow of new doctoral graduates, they say.
This thesis isn’t promoted only by senior academics. It’s also something you might hear from harassed, demoralised early career researchers themselves. After all, it’s those without permanent jobs for whom the paucity and declining security of academic employment bites hardest. Of course, it’s admirable when senior colleagues seek to align themselves with these embattled cohorts. But the problems begin as soon as you start asking questions about their solution.
Imagine making the argument about any other level of education. After all, there are more university graduates out there than can fill all the roles once thought of as “graduate jobs”. Some people argue that we should go back to the way things were when only a small, elite stratum went to university. Apprenticeships for all the rest, they say. If that’s your attitude, then good luck to you, but I find it a surprising one for people to express from a campus office. Maybe we should give out fewer secondary school qualifications as well. That would really help to ease the job market.
Rejecting the overproduction thesis doesn’t mean denying the horror of the academic job market or the well-documented fact that there are more qualified academics than there are academic jobs. Nor does it mean absolving universities that abuse the relatively cheap labour of postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers. In a labour market like ours, all sorts of injustices emerge – and for a career with the cultural cachet of academia, some contenders can and will use privileges such as support from parents or spouses to offer their labour at rates that others can’t sustain. The more highly competitive the market, under such conditions, the less meritocratic it becomes. The problems are real, and all too often universities are happy to abet them.
But let’s think, just for a moment, about how reducing the supply of PhDs would actually work. It’s easy to imagine a more manageable pool of candidates. We’d make sure that only the best were admitted on to postgraduate programmes. We’d keep out those least likely to succeed in turning their three or four years of advanced study into a secure, productive academic post. We’d be doing them a favour in the long run, right? Except, wouldn’t applying those criteria mean saying “yes” to men and women who look like, well, us? Those serious scholars who work in fields we think are legitimate? Those who don’t suffer from employability handicaps like the wrong race, gender or class background? After all, that’s how it worked in the days before we started “overproducing” PhDs.
We need to acknowledge that advanced study isn’t job training. If you think a PhD is worthwhile only when it leads you towards £40,000 a year, then what, I wonder, is your attitude to pure mathematics or art history? I agree that it is irresponsible to advertise a PhD course as a route to steady paid employment, but then I don’t know any graduate student who actually fell for that assumption. The ones I know went in with their eyes open, and they deserve better than the patronising attitude that their presence is what’s making things worse for the whole profession.
The truth is, we could provide more jobs for academics. We could, if we wanted to, transform and expand universities – cut class sizes or even offer one-to-one tutorials; provide more lifelong education; reduce teaching loads and free up more time for research. If such a change seems utterly utopian, think about what conditions were like 60 years ago. A better world is possible. We have to believe in it, champion it and help to build it – and that means challenging the ideological apparatus that lies in its way. Every time you hear about the bad job market and you say that the solution is less education, you’re engaging in the reproduction of that ideology.
Meaningful work is scarce everywhere, and getting scarcer. I think we should work to change that, but doing so entails a serious political commitment. Calling to shut more people out of advanced learning isn’t part of that effort. Rather, it’s a remarkable retreat from the ideals that drove expansion of the universities in the past century – ideals that we’ll need to defend if they are to survive into the next one.
Tom Cutterham is lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham.