Junior academics feel management ‘have pulled the ladder up’

Precarious contracts ‘damage’ universities’ teaching and reputation, panel says

November 28, 2019
Big Debate at THE Live

Universities must address the feeling among younger staff that managers at the top of institutions “have pulled the ladder up behind them”, according to a leading academic.

As staff at 60 UK universities take industrial action over pay, pensions and conditions, universities need to end the “us versus them” battle between junior staff and management, according to Sarah Churchwell, chair of public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Speaking in the “Big Debate” at Times Higher Education’s THE Live, Professor Churchwell said the fact that the strikes began about pensions but expanded into a wider debate about the direction of travel at universities showed that “the answers are myriad and complicated”.

“I am very sympathetic with [early career researchers] on precarious contracts and people feeling that the casualisation of academia has created all kinds of systemic and life problems for them,” she said. “They feel the management of the university is unsympathetic to them, that they’ve pulled up the ladder, taken all the benefits and enjoyed a cushy life straight from a degree into a secure position.

“As someone who went into a secure post after my PhD and hasn’t experienced insecure labour, I think it’s incumbent on me to listen to what they are saying very carefully. So, when they express that feeling of divisiveness…we all have to do a lot better.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said he believed that unions and striking staff may have to make a trade-off between their pension demands and their hopes of addressing precarious contracts, as universities would be in a better financial position, and therefore able to get more staff on to proper contracts, if they didn’t have to pay more into pensions.

“If there is a trade-off, I would put ending junior staff on precarious contracts as the priority. That’s more important,” he said.

Mary Curnock Cook, the former Ucas chief executive who also spoke on the panel, agreed that precarious contracts were not good for higher education. “It damages universities,” she said. “Not just through the public’s perception, which the strikes have brought attention to, but through teaching…we could do a lot better [teaching] with staff on stable contracts.”

The panellists also said that universities had to do more to support younger staff when it came to harassment: both through supporting staff to help students who report it and when using social media themselves.

Professor Churchwell said that early career staff were regularly told to “get out there” on social media, particularly Twitter, to boost their research and career. However, the abuse that can follow when a wider audience is reached can have a serious effect on mental health, particularly among vulnerable young women, she said.

“We have to have better support systems within universities, particularly for women and minorities, who often get the worse abuse,” she said. “And they need to know that they can opt out if they don’t want to engage in this way.”

She also spoke about harassment that happens on campus, particularly involving student victims. “I get angrier and angrier when a young woman has been seriously failed and the university puts out a statement simply stating ‘student safety is paramount to us’ but doing nothing more,” she said. “We are failing victims of sexual violence.”

Ms Curnock Cook agreed, particularly as academics were the first line of pastoral care and yet got no training on how to deal with it. “There is a litany of people who are not qualified doing interviews in these cases. We have to do better,” she said.

Ms Curnock Cook added that the evidence shows there was “violence and harassment going on university campuses” and yet universities were often perversely concerned with their reputation, “but actually they would look far better if they properly dealt with these things and listened [to those] reporting harassment”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Career ladder out of young staff’s reach

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