British Academia: abandoning the next generation

The fate of young academics in UK universities looks increasingly bleak: the chance to reach paid employment as an academic in the Arts and Humanities increasingly depends not only on talent and a willingness to work hard, but also on access to considerable funds.

The problem is that universities increasingly expect early career academics to take on heavy teaching loads for a pittance, and often such jobs are paid only for eight or nine months. Yet, when those same institutions hire people for ‘real jobs’, they expect CVs with large amounts of research – the kind of CV you can’t achieve when you don’t actually get paid research time.

Where, then, do these people with appropriate CVs come from? A very few have the privilege to get one of the few coveted fully paid post-doctoral research positions – in the Arts and Humanities most of these are junior research fellowships in the old universities. To stand out among hundreds of applications, you’d better have a CV with special prizes back to prep school – and if you are from the UK, that kind of CV is certainly easier to get if your parents have the money to put you through a private education.

Beyond that exclusive world many excellent young researchers find it increasingly difficult to an academic career without drawing on private funds. The exploitation starts at PhD level – many undergraduate courses could not be taught without postgraduate students who are willing (feel compelled to) provide teaching for a pittance which is usually well below minimum wage if you take into account all that is actually required in order to do the work properly.

But once the PhD is finished, the difficulties really start. Our young aspiring academic is now perhaps 26 or 27, has three degrees, and has to be ready to survive for several years on low-paid short-term contracts, with regular gaps of employment  in summer, little mentoring while in employment, and hardly a chance for any help with long-term planning and career development. Some have to be grateful to survive on a patchwork of minimal contracts or some lecturing paid by the hour; often commuting between workplaces will be necessary to stay afloat at all. Count in all the unpaid preparation time, and this tends to be highly qualified and specialised work paid at or below minimum wage.

Why am I blogging about this today? Because the situation looks as if it is getting worse. Today it became public that Birmingham university had advertised ‘honorary research positions’ for graduates – in essence a very intensive form of unpaid internship. Unpaid internships are common in many sectors of business, media and the creative industries – and they are a major obstacle for anybody who lacks the connections to get one of these posts and the money to maintain themselves while working as an intern. Yet, these internships are often a crucial precondition for landing a proper job in any of these professions. No wonder that so many in leading positions in the UK are from wealthy backgrounds! This advertisement has now been withdrawn, but I think we all have to remain alert: unpaid internships are an obstacle to giving chances to the most talented in any area – but academia can least afford to select its personnel by wealth rather than by ability.

UK academia has never been entirely meritocratic, it’s impossible with a school system that so clearly favours the wealthy, but one might argue that a generation ago, people with outstanding degree results had a good chance to get into an academic career, even if their parents couldn’t support them into their early thirties. Just ten years ago, I started in my first academic job a week before submitting my thesis, I managed to get to a permanent position some years later without ever being unemployed, not even over summer. I’d consider many of our early career academics very lucky if they could still manage to achieve that: temporary positions which last twelve months are hard to come by these days.

Under these conditions, it is extremely hard to accumulate the kind of research record departments matter-of-factly expect from anybody applying for a permanent position. Without money to pay themselves some research time, our own homegrown talent finds it hard to compete with candidates from countries where postdoctoral research is still funded more generously, for example Germany, which produces many highly qualified postdoctoral researchers just to throw most of them onto the academic scrap-heap in their mid-30s.

What I find particularly despicable about the situation in the UK is that universities seem happy to abdicate their responsibility to nurture talent to the level they themselves expect from those they employ in permanent positions. What other sector can allow itself to be so short-sighted  in neglecting the development of the next generation?

I wish I knew how we can turn round this situation. I remember trying to raise the alarm about the increasing number of eight-month temporary teaching contracts when I first got my permanent(ish) job. But if departments have to choose between being even more severely understaffed and abandoning the moral high ground, there seems to be little chance to insist that we should not exploit young academics so shamelessly.

Birmingham had to withdraw its unpaid internships this time – but for how long will we be able to resist the pressure to adopt yet another practice from the corporate world which is entirely unsuitable for academia?

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11 Responses to British Academia: abandoning the next generation

  1. Doug says:

    It’s a problem of suppy and demand. Too many doctorates are awarded for too few positions. Fairness has absolutely no place in a meritocracy and I am not persuaded that wealth results in better performance.

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    Doug – I am not arguing that wealth results in better performance. I am arguing that career paths are now such that without some private wealth to tide you over periods without employment you are unlikely to get anywhere. Fairness has nothing to do with it. In a meritocracy, particularly if places are scarce, people should be chosen by merit, not by their ability to tide themselves over periods without academic employment without having to work so that they can do the required top quality research.

  3. Thank you for this important post. I’d just add that this is not only a problem for young academics aged “26 or 27”. Many of us did PhDs after having done two master’s and taught for years to make a living. “Mature” students can also be early-career scholars, and the assumption that if one is early-career one should be 26 or 27 is another extra obstacle.
    If you are not that young anymore, people expect you to have a research CV as if you had been engaged in fully-funded post-doc research for years. I am glad we are beginning to see more open critique of an unsustainable situation. The truth is people are afraid to speak up, and the assumption that if you are in academia you are always-already privileged (i.e. able to work for free until paid work comes) is still taken for granted. Privilege remains the elephant in the room. Maybe not for much longer!

  4. Maria Pretzler says:

    Thanks for pointing this out…. I always hope that university education gets more flexible, with more people deciding to study, or study again, later in life. You are absolutely right, we definitely do not want to lock out mature students from academic careers, and what’s goig on at the moment has exactly this effect.

    Fully agree with the rest of your post, too. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Stephen Etheridge says:

    I agree it’s hard. Nevertheless, I also find the assumption that all new graduates are young and in their twenties annoying. This borders on naivety. I have many examples of PhD doctoral candidates of mature age not only gaining PhDs but also careers. It is hard, but I hope it doesn’t include age.

    Stephen Etheridge
    University of Huddersfield

  6. Nessa Cronin says:

    Many thanks Maria for this article, and may I also add that gender, on top of other forms of educational and employment inequalities, is also a significant factor in terms of appointments of early career scholars. When it comes to the stage where female academics have children, those in short-term/fixed-term contracts are in a particularly precarious position, as they may find it difficult to re-enter academic after maternity leave (often unpaid). This, in addition to the question of class and access to good working conditions and pay, will be a matter of serious concern in future years.

  7. James Russell says:

    I’m struck by a few points reading this article. First of all I agree that all across employment sectors the career trajectory has become a lot less meritocratic than it was for the baby boomers, and this seems to be a shame and something to be regretted. However Doug makes a good point- with a very highly qualified labour market the laws of supply and demand (which govern employment as much as they govern value of consumer goods) will create this situation and fatalistic as it feels to say it, a work force needs to be savy, flexible and organised (unionised) to deal with these challenges.

    Universities would give the same argument as the corporate world- where should the money come from to train new staff? This argument is too quickly rejected by retorts about short mindedness without appreciating the financial struggles organisations face. If permanent paid research posts are going to be created and maintained then what should be dropped? facilities? High status and expensive staff? Opportunities for conferencing? Any of these would undermine the big university cash cow- students. A lot of universities are struggling to make ends meet, so if you are going to argue they should change their spending priorities, what should they change?

    Cruel as my final point may sound, and forgive me for sounding bigoted, but this argument also sounds like there is a sense of entitlement to have what has been before. If the market has changed then there will be new opportunities coming available. For example there are quality universities in China, India and the Middle East that are prepared to pay much more than minimum wage for quality teaching staff that would open up new research possibilities.

    Finally, the desirability of the new commercialization of academia may not be desirable, but it is a reality. The arts and humanities have struggled with this commercialism because their study lacks a clear link to market credentials. Notice I have said a ‘clear link’- I believe students of the arts and humanities have wonderful contributions to make to the market place, but that these are not articulated in a way that prospective students recognise and so the source of income is limited. If investment in jobs is going to be forthcoming then the arts and humanities need to continue to convince those outside the field that they are meaningful, relevant and significant. My experience of working with young people is that this message is not coming through.

  8. Pingback: British Academia: abandoning the next generation | Meny Snoweballes

  9. Rachel says:

    I’ve linked this on my blog. Resonated with me!

  10. Liz Gloyn says:

    In terms of what one can do, I wanted to flag up that UCU is running a Stamp Out Casual Contracts campaign – – both at the national and at the branch level. It won’t solve all of the problems, but it might start a conversation about why there is this discrepancy between the sorts of entry-level jobs on offer and the expectations about jobs higher up the career chain.

  11. Maria Pretzler says:

    Stephen – good point.
    In fact, I hope that more people will engage in lifelong learning and don’t find age a obstacle to embark on a degree, a PhD or an academic career.
    I should have made this clear, and thank you for pointing it out. The situation I am describing is of course even more difficult if you have any kind of commitments, such as a family and/or a mortgage, so older people at that stage of their career would probably find it even more tough.

    James Russell,
    You are mistaken if you think that there is no market for arts and humanities. I don’t know what young people you are talking to, but we are finding no problem to recruit students for Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology where I am. I can tell you that many departments are understaffed, compared to student numbers. We might ask whether we have the right funding model, if high student numbers still can’t pay for the necessary staff, but that’s the reality.

    I don’t think you sound bigoted (that’s a different category altogether, isn’t it?), but I do think you sound rather short-sighted. The problem doesn’t only exist in the humanities – and it means that UK universities fail to nurture some of our best talents. Which is a very bad idea if we want to stay competitive in the international market you mention.

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