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?