Have ‘young academics’ been betrayed?

There’s been some frustration on Twitter with Mathew Lyons’ piece in History Today on ‘Young academics: the great betrayal‘. Commenters have taken exception, in particular, to the suggestions that many academics disdain teaching (which I agree is unfair) and that they don’t support early career colleagues. The temptation is, though, to point to structural problems as if academics bear no responsibility for those at all.

The fact is, however, that there have been possibilities to resist the structural change that has got us where we are. Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at a Russell Group university, we had tutorial groups of six and from the first year my tutorials were run by permanent academic staff. Very occasionally they were delegated to a PhD student, but that was the exception. Now (outside Oxbridge) it’s rare to find tutorial groups of fewer than ten, and teaching by doctoral students is the norm at first-year level. I don’t have the data to hand to make that more than an anecdotal point but I doubt many people would argue with it.

So it’s reasonable to ask, I think, whether those in a position to resist that change did enough, and whether there’s more we might do now.

I’m sure that many of the objectors to Mathew’s argument were the person in the Departmental meeting who said – when it was announced the Department must take x% additional students with no additional staff – that this was unacceptable. Perhaps they went on demonstrations against tuition fees, or wrote to MPs, or lobbied within their universities. They may well have been the people, too, who went to their UCU branch meeting and said that we need a strategy to tackle the increasing dependence on casualised staff to deliver teaching. And it’s good that they did those things.

But I do think there is a case to be made – in general – that there’s been more throwing up of hands in horror at the incremental shifts towards increased precarity in higher education work than practical resistance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a serious industrial dispute in the university sector over job security for early career staff. UCU has raised the question regularly in the annual pay negotiation rounds, but the employers’ body UCEA refuses to negotiate on the topic, and, well, that’s been it.

Yet there are many practical things that might be done. Here’s one suggestion. A consortium of universities (such bodies already exist to deliver doctoral training and for various other purposes) might hire early career academics on the basis that they’ll be guaranteed permanent work in one of the partner institutions, even if it isn’t the one where they start out. That’s how many large companies operate – with the expectation that in the first few years of work you might switch base – and they seem to manage it perfectly well. Such a system would give departments some flexibility while allowing ECRs to plan their lives better than they can on a succession of nine-month teaching contracts. It would shift some of the risk away from the individual onto the institutional group. The practicalities would take some working out, and it’s certainly not all I’d wish for in the long term, but perhaps as well as lamenting our betrayal we should start talking about solutions and how we might campaign for them. After all, if we don’t fight, we can’t win.

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9 thoughts on “Have ‘young academics’ been betrayed?

  1. I particularly like your idea about consortia, especially as the current ones are regional; having to move around is much easier when it’s moving between towns in e.g. the South West rather than having to move up and down the country (and easier on family life). Great points on collective action too.

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  2. The suggestion about consortia is interesting, but I fear it may introduce another ‘two-class system’ between PhDs. For example: Dr A applies for, and gets, a ‘consortium’ post and after 5 years of moving around she gets a permanent post, as promised; Dr B applies for and doesn’t get the position because he’s not as accomplished as Dr A. Two years down the line, he has developed a publication record and he’s now a stronger candidate than Dr A – but now there are several fewer temporary/entry-level positions he can apply for, because they’ve been consolidated into just a few posts.

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    1. I take your point, though that happens already with lectureships and some fellowship schemes. There’s always an advantage of incumbency, the question is whether that’s a worthwhile trade-off for more employment security.

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  3. Perhaps Catherine would care to look at the behaviour of one of her colleagues who is a Professor of Engineering at Swansea University. This man is the editor of a journal to which I submitted a paper over a year ago. I heard nothing for six months, wrote to the journal and later received a referees report asking for some changes. I
    submitted them. Another six months, another prompt and a brief further report emerged. A few more changes were made the paper sent back and nothing for another six months. Apart from being unprofessional and unethical in any circumstances, such behaviour can totally ruin a young academics career. Such people are employed on short term contracts, without publications the contract is not renewed and they cannot get another job. This is the true betrayal.

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  4. Apologies for the slow approval of this comment. It arrived while I was beginning my new job and taking a break from the blog. I’m sorry to hear about this experience: reviewers and editors are often busy but at the very least they should keep contributors informed if there are likely to be such long delays.

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