At some point in the past few months, I realized that I am not interested in another academic contract without a future. It was a decision that more or less made itself. It will be nine years this summer since my thesis was finished; three research fellowships, two books, and four teaching jobs later, my views of the profession and my prospects in it are not what they were. Why?
More than anything else, perhaps, it has been increasing encounters with realities that seem far removed from the integrity that academia cultivates in its self-image (think of the spirit of fairness in how we see such things as double marking, peer review, or plagiarism). This disjunction appears, for example, in the operation of the job market, in the culture of competition to which ever-narrowing specialisation can lead, and in dismissive attitudes to how students and teaching figure in what we do.
Healthy scepticism, even a degree of disillusionment, is different from cynicism. I still love my medieval poets, and I would still love to teach and research in a university context that benefitted in equal measure my students, my employer, and me. Think permanent or tenure-track job.
Yet such opportunities have become increasingly exclusive. The figures below from a Guardian investigation last year are but one reflection of that. The situation is on the point of becoming untenable.
There are, I believe, things that can be done. Funding bodies could become a vehicle for change: what would early-career grants look like if, rather than – intentionally or not – supporting the normalization of insecurity, they led to sustainable career paths and the long-term generation of knowledge?
As a community, we could think about how hiring processes could become more transparent. How about a climate that is comfortable with more openly articulating why it is not always just about merit? The rights and wrongs of that are a separate and complex question; my point here is simply that having a balanced discussion about them is difficult when things slip out informally and/or post factum. And having that discussion matters more than ever when it comes to fields whose future is under threat and in which long-term opportunities are few and far between.
We might also ask why, in the UK at least, higher education politics and management appear to have become something akin to a parallel universe in which policy-making is a game divorced both from the reality of many working in the field and from the ideals they associate with it. We could look at pay for a start. UCU’s report on senior salaries for 2015/2016 (p. 2), for instance, makes sobering reading alongside the above stats on precarious employment:
Those are but three suggestions. Not everyone will agree with them. But they might get a discussion going, and I submit that that is what matters. We need to talk candidly about what is happening. Not to joke about the inequities, not to trivialize them as a matter of ‘luck’, and not to pretend they don’t exist by not mentioning them at all.