Precarity means top students quitting academia, warns OECD expert

Report author says increasing funding would only lead to more insecurity, and culture shift is needed instead

June 8, 2021
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Academic precarity is a wide-ranging threat to the quality of research globally, with the brightest students now eschewing a career in academia because of poor working conditions, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has warned.

While the problem of short-term, high-pressure and insecure jobs for early career researchers is well known, the Paris-based thinktank, which recently conducted interviews with some 100 policymakers and scientists, has concluded that it is one of the most serious problems facing the research enterprise.

“It clearly is the case that the best people aren’t going into academia any more,” said Carthage Smith, a senior policy analyst at the OECD who contributed to a report on the issue. This conclusion came through “no matter what type of stakeholder we spoke to”, he added.

“It’s really serious for science if many of these brightest young people are choosing not to go into science or are dropping out early,” he said. “It’s a fundamental issue.”


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The OECD report, Reducing the Precarity of Academic Research Careers, characterises academia as a “shrinking protected research elite and a large precarious research class that now represents the majority in most academic systems”.

Several factors have contributed to precarious working conditions. A switch away from core funding to competitive grant systems has meant more pressure for “flexibility in staffing”. Meanwhile, there has been a “staggering” increase in the number of PhD holders, growing by 25 per cent among the working-age population in OECD countries in the five years to 2019.

Just 52 per cent of corresponding authors have a permanent contract, the report warns. For authors under 34, three-quarters are in fixed-term positions.

According to interviewees, “many positions are filled with what they consider as less able national students and/or international students. They are concerned that this will ultimately affect the quality of the research being produced.”

“Bright people see what happens in an academic career, and they can go elsewhere,” said Dr Smith.

While differences between countries exist, the problem is now globally endemic, the report makes clear.

“It’s almost as though the precarity is viral; it’s spread from country to country,” Dr Smith said. Countries need precarious, flexible academic labour to remain competitive in research, and what results is a global race to the bottom, he explained.

“There’s a bit of passing the buck to some extent,” with universities blaming research funders, and vice versa, Dr Smith added. Precarious researchers were hidden “off the books”, meaning some university authorities “are not even aware they are there”, he said.

As for solutions, “I actually don’t think money is the issue,” he said, and added that interviewees had backed this up.

The problem is that with a glut of new funding, universities tend to recruit a handful of “overseas top professors” who in turn hire an army of temporary PhDs and postdocs below them. “The net effect is that the university gets more people on precarious positions,” he said.

Instead, precarity would be better eased by an end to the “almost complete dependence” on bibliometric indicators and “obsession with lots of short-term outputs that have a high profile”, which encourages short-term, insecure working conditions, Dr Smith said.

Training early career researchers for jobs outside academia would also ease job market pressure, he said, as fewer scholars would apply for limited early-stage jobs.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Precarity means top students quitting academia, warns OECD expert

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Reader's comments (4)

Another hugely important piece from David Matthews on the current predicament of academic science. So refreshing to read something with facts, logic and relevance, and a welcome diversion from the woke nonsense that now typifies this publication.
Agreed but this issue is now so long-standing that it is difficult to change. There was already a problem in some subjects when I got my PhD in 1990 that has spread more widely since. An academic career is now not appealing to most students given that conditions are now worse than they were when I took my first post. Pay has not kept up with inflation, the pension is less generous, and there has been an increase in managerial oversight and bureaucracy. There is (thank goodness) more freedom than in most walks of life but even that does not apply to those in precarious positions.
You summarise the realities extremely well and I agree that it will be difficult to change the system. However, as incentives tend to determine outcomes, less funding for PhD studentships and more for creating staff scientist posts for the valuable post-docs, who are the backbone of most good research groups, may help. PhD studentships may then be more competitive and attractive; I'm not sure which would come first.
PhD studentships are scarcer. Then, considering the prospects after completing a PhD, the absence of work-life balance, continuously growing "assessment" with metrics that are creating more hassle than anything, and the relentless pressure on securing funding is not that appealing anymore after all. Ludicrous to expect someone on a 1-2 years post-doc position to spend their time delivering excellent research while also applying for funding to secure yet another 1-2 (3?) years post-doc. Add to that having to move every other year, no security of income... No wonder the best and the brightest choose other ways to spend their lives.

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