Spare a thought for those broken and cast out of this hostile home

Universities nurture the life of the mind, but lack of opportunity and support post-PhD is making UK academe an inhospitable place to be, says Srila Roy

March 11, 2010

As the ranks of the unemployed swell in the current global recession, for those still in the academic job market the only solace it perhaps affords is that they are no longer in the minority. For academic unemployment precedes the recession and will certainly outlive it - thanks to job cuts, and department and even campus closures - leaving many recent PhDs without an institutional home and little, if any, security.

Still, this moment provides a temporary mode of rationalising jobs in the fields of the humanities and social sciences, where cuts are often immediate and "unavoidable". What it explains less is the arbitrary process of hiring in our universities, and how some candidates and not others end up in jobs. Yet there is little open discussion of these issues and even less accountability in British higher education institutions. Perhaps this is attributable to our blind faith in the legal directives in place to ensure fairness and transparency. These provide little protection, as every graduate student who is embarking on an academic career knows all too well, against the judgement of an appointment committee whose decision remains non-questionable and absolute. No amount of meeting the "essential" and "desirable" criteria in the specifications for a role can explain the decision ultimately taken.

In Britain, we know what is expected of us by the time we graduate, even though departments rarely see such grooming for the job market as part of their wider pastoral care (unlike in the US). We graduate knowing that we need some teaching experience and a burgeoning publication profile that will make us research assessment exercise-able at all times. Even so, job specifications become more unrealistic for recent PhD graduates just as job opportunities shrink and the numbers of PhDs enrolled and awarded grow.

The current overwhelming trend in the humanities and the social sciences is towards temporary, fixed-term contracts. Yet the demands are ever increasing - a track record of publication and obtaining research funding, "an emerging international reputation for research", full-time teaching experience as well as a teaching qualification, and even administrative experience. Few universities remind the PhDs they greedily seek and covet that it is these, and not the "transferable skills" that graduate prospectuses list, that academic employers are expecting them to produce along with their PhD qualification. Transferable skills have, in fact, little meaning in the world of academic hiring. Rejected candidates are routinely told that they are too specialised, that what they propose to teach is not diverse enough. In any case, job specs that detail what they desire, however unrealistic and opportunistic, provide more comfort than those that harp on about "communication", "organisational" and "teamwork" skills. These prescriptions enable the worst forms of injustices, protecting against any kind of accountability on the part of the institution.

Elsewhere, PhDs and not-so-recent PhDs with books in the bag are still awaiting interview calls. Others who have undergone a gruelling day of presentations and interviews are not worthy of a personalised rejection over the phone or in an email, even in such insecure times. I was lucky enough to obtain a permanent full-time post within a year of finishing my PhD but the awareness that my peers, friends and loved ones - passionate and accomplished scholars - have not been quite so lucky concerns me no end. It concerns me as I provide career advice to our current graduates, and while I accept PhD applications to my department. For nowhere do we articulate the depth of despair and anxiety that awaits these students - many of whom have made life-changing decisions in returning to higher education and pursuing a doctorate. For us, academia provides a home for the spirit and mind before, of course, it turns us into outcasts and spits us out. The same PhDs that we recruit are today turning around and asking us when this home became so inhospitable, even hostile.

Colleagues in academia, especially those early in their careers, are so quickly sucked into the pressures of performing that there is little collective empathy for those who are locked out; we are so deeply mired in our own competition for precious research time. Yet it is for us, above all, to promote an ethic of responsibility, of care. As Indian academic Pratiksha Baxi has recently noted: "For every broken person who is unable to write after encountering the inhumanity which abounds in our universities, each one of us is responsible for destruction rather than creation of the life of the mind. Is it not high time we find a different voice?"

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