How boom turned to gloom

December 24, 2004

New blood sought as a generation prepares to retire. Chris Johnston reports

Mass recruitment of a new generation of social scientists is needed to replace academics who started their careers in the boom days of the Sixties and Seventies and whose impending retirement spells trouble for universities.

Most seriously affected is education. Almost half the academics in the field are due to retire in the next ten years. The equivalent figure for social work is40 per cent and for sociology it is 38 per cent.

Even in social-science subjects such as economics and business and management studies, which have come into vogue more recently, about a third of academics are set to retire within a decade. Meanwhile, linguistics and planning are expecting a similar exodus.

Of almost 28,000 academic staff in social sciences, about 10,000, or 35 per cent, are more than 50 years old and are likely to start drawing their pensions before 2014.

The figures are among preliminary findings of a demographic review of Britain's social-science base being carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Ian Diamond, the council's chief executive, said the subjects facing mass retirements "absolutely need to be developed if we are to have the human infrastructure to take forward social sciences".

The ESRC review, due to be completed by September 2005, will identify strategies to tackle the problem and attract a new generation of researchers to replenish the UK's pool of social scientists.

The slowdown in the production line of UK masters students going on to complete doctorates and become lecturers has already forced social-science departments to hire more staff from overseas.

Last year, 44 per cent of PhD students in social sciences were from abroad, up 7 per cent on the previous year. That trend is likely to continue.

There was a problem with recruitment of academics, but finding a remedy could be difficult, said Shaun Hargreaves Heap, dean of the faculty of social sciences at the University of East Anglia.

In his field, economics, the business world offered more lucrative jobs and research opportunities to masters graduates. "It is people quite naturally voting with their feet when they see better opportunities outside the university sector," he said.

But pay was not the only reason why social-science students were shunning academe, he said. Many realised that teaching and research were accompanied by seemingly endless form filling, required by everything from research funding proposals to teaching quality audits.

"The character of academic life has become bureaucratised, with the result that one spends less time doing the things that used to make the profession exciting," he said.

Social sciences were put under the microscope with the publication of the 166-page Great Expectations report in March, 2003. The report was the work of the Commission on the Social Sciences, chaired by David Rhind, vice-chancellor of City University.

One of its conclusions is that most social-science research happens on such a small scale that it resembles a "cottage industry".

"We urge a radically new approach to produce an additional, very different, type of social science research," the report states.

Professor Diamond agrees that social sciences need to move from "lone-scholar" mode to "big" social science that will address the questions that society needs to answer. These questions demand large data sets and longitudinal studies that cost money, and, according to Professor Diamond, will work on this scale would happen only with a step change in ESRC funding.

Ian Forbes, dean of social sciences at Nottingham University and chairman of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, said the amount of funding devoted to social-science research was "minuscule" compared with that spent on science.

The ESRC distributes £93 million a year in funding. And, although areas such as the physical sciences are expensive to run, it is illustrative that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has more than five times that amount to dish out.

The Government's ten-year science framework will see the ESRC given more money, but Professor Forbes said it failed to mention social sciences. The omission sat oddly with the Government's reliance on social science for evidence-based policymaking, he added.

But the Great Expectations report says that British social sciences are thought of highly internationally. "We are regarded as second only to the US in terms of volume and quality of research," it states, and notes that the Quality Assurance Agency found most social science teaching in universities to be of good quality.

Further developing the quality of UK social science will depend on collaborating internationally, according to Professor Diamond.

He said the ESRC was working to build links beyond Europe and that included a collaboration with the Social Sciences Research Council for US academics to visit ESRC research centres and programmes. Agreements have also been struck with partner academies in China to offer grants for research visits and projects in areas of common interest.

Interdisciplinary research was another priority for the future, Professor Diamond said. "There must be proper interaction between social scientists and scientists as we cannot take forward scientific, breakthroughs without understanding the implications for society," he said.

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