Among the various elephants in the room in current debates about Higher Education is the term ‘mobility’. Time and time again it is used without any critical distance, as if it could only be an unqualified Good Thing. All the more important, therefore, to look through the language being used and consider the possibility that there might – perish the thought – be other ways of seeing things. In this blogpost, I’m going to try to do just that with reference to a report on a new Europe-wide pension scheme for itinerant researchers that has been doing the rounds on Twitter.

In and of itself, setting up such a scheme is is eminently sensible. The trouble is that it is presented in such a way as to deflect attention from other, deeper problems with the mobility agenda.

Representative of this is the line that the scheme is a ‘solution’ to the currrent lack of pension arrangments, which ‘puts a damper on scientists’ mobility’. In a balanced context, this would be a perfectly reasonable point to make.

When balance is lacking, however, it creates the impression that mobility can only be a positive. The reasoning behind the move, and the reasoning that is not questioned in the report, is that we need more mobility. The possibility that setting down roots somewhere might have its benefits too – is left in silence. Overinterpreting? Perhaps, were it not for the more general absence of a critical perspective.

We learn, for instance, that the EU has put €4m toward setting up the scheme. That sounds generous and impressive. What’s more, the official rhetoric gives the impression of being on the side of researchers – viz. a spokesperson quoted as saying ‘The excuse [for institutions] to do nothing is gone’.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? A weak point in mobility has been recognized and addressed by taking action to benefit the researchers. But it is also a clever move that channels the debate away from more pressing weaknesses in what mobility means for those who live it year-in, year-out. Instead of being seriously acknowledged, the reality is trivialized with phrases such as ‘hop around the continent’ or ‘even if it’s just a few hundred kilometers from home’.

 

This lack of critical distance is symptomatic. It worries me because it has all but normalized an existence in which researchers are yo-yoing from one location to another, from one fixed-term contract to the next, every few years.

Pension costs several decades down the line are one thing. What about the others, real and metaphorical, in the here and now? There are financial ones – the article’s reference to a ‘nest egg’ may seem a bit hollow to those who repeatedly spend their savings on relocating without support from employers or funding bodies. There are personal ones – think of the long-distance relationships, of what it means to raise a family in this kind of lifestyle. And there are intellectual ones – does establishing an infrastructure and a foundation, only to mothball it and start afresh every few years, really support the sustainable creation of knowledge?

Questions like these need to find a place in the debate again.

The sad thing is that – like open access or impact, really – the underlying idea behind mobility is a happy one. It means experiencing new countries, making new contacts, learning about different ways of doing things, experiencing teaching and research beyond what one is familiar with.

Mobility, in that sense, emphatically should be part of an academic career. The problem is that it is pretty close to becoming the career. After all – if somebody wanted to make it the norm from PhD through to retirement … what ‘problem’ might they address first?