Limiting PhDs creates the wrong kind of elite

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

January 5, 2017
Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

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.


Print headline: Let the right ones in: limiting PhDs creates the wrong kind of elite

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Reader's comments (5)

From the article: "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 the merit of PhD study is not simply a matter of the earning potential. However, it's simply wrong to suggest that PhDs in pure mathematics have low earning potential -- these are in fact some of the most sought-after graduates who tend to earn commensurately. I do wonder if this is connected with the limited supply of PhD places for pure mathematics - the intense competition for places means that you typically need an excellent first-class degree to have a good chance of obtaining funding. Another indicator: in my Russell group mathematics department there are significantly more full-time academic staff than there are PhD students, in stark contrast to the situation in many science of engineering departments. Possibly as a consequence of this, it seems to be less difficult (though still not easy) for Pure Mathematics PhD graduates to obtain academic positions than in some other subjects.
I agree with the main thrust of this article and it begs a number of other questions relating to the PhD. The increased numbers in PhDs may be taken as a gauge to how successful a society is in terms of its higher education system but also as a means of supplying non-academic industries with the necessary knowledge, skills and attributes that the knowledge economy now requires. HE needs to hear more about this supply from all types of employers. It would be good to see a joint CBI/NCUB (National Centre for Universities and Business) report on this aspect of the PhD as the vast majority of doctoral graduates eventually enter non-academic careers.
You should go counting the number of PhD holders in clerical roles within the universities - essentially depriving GCSE holders of fine jobs.
The arguments in this piece are frankly bizarre, and I say that as a PhD candidate. Yes, there are too many university graduates who can't find meaningful work that relates to their studies but at they are more flexible and potential have a broader range of opportunities than specialist PhD studies that in the main lead back into academia. Maybe if the people with PhDs weren't taking jobs that competent graduates could take ... Next comes the phony argument that academics would select PhD candidates who are like "us". Any competent university would set up candidate selection criteria that are very transparent. Then we have the questioning of students opting to do a PhD because of the increase in salary it is assumed to offer. Oddly enough outside academia its not uncommon for researchers and analysts to in fact be paid a higher salary if they do hold a PhD. And the rest of the argument is ideological waffle that ignores the practicalities of cost and the potential impact on the future jobs market. The true role of education is impart knowledge to prepare students for the future. Academia doesn't exist in a vacuum but in a wider society. Any action that an educational institute takes to limit that future, such as ignoring the demands of society or the over-supply of graduates or higher degrees, is acting counter to the students' future best interests.
Where as it can be said that there is "an over supply of PhDs" in Western Europe, the same cannot be said of the developing world. I say this as a doctoral student in Uganda. There is barely any University in East Africa that has more than 50% of its academic staff holding a PhD. The cost is so high that a country like Uganda does not have a recognisable support structure for this kind of training. The main thrust here is perhaps scholars in UK and other Western European countries should look to internationalising their careers and consider time in Africa. (Well the pay may not be the same).