Young academics: the great betrayal

This piece first appeared in the September 2015 issue of History Today. I discussed the issues it raised with Catherine Fletcher in a related podcast which can be heard here. Catherine wrote a THE blog in response to my article and the disagreements it aroused, which can be read here.

Supporters of the status quo in higher education are about as common as authentic autographs from Abu Qatada. Yet I am not sure many of those who have attacked successive governments for the short-sightedness of their policies are aware of how systemic the problems are.

Let us look, for example, at those at the very beginning of their careers. One of the great pleasures of my role as a public historian is getting to meet PhD students and early career researchers in both History and the broader humanities. Their intelligence, creativity, ambition, energy and dedication is extraordinary and leaves me, for one, deeply humbled.

It also leaves me acutely aware of my good fortune in having been born a couple of decades earlier, because today it takes a brave person to undertake postgraduate study in the humanities – and then to seek a career in academia – without the security of a private income, or rich parents, or, more commonly, both.

Increasingly, early-career researchers are offered only poorly paid nine-month teaching contracts. They receive little or no support from their faculties. Indeed, in many cases they are essentially non-people within the faculty, denied access to office space, telephones, email addresses and all the other facilities one might take for granted in any other organisation. They are offered no career development or pastoral support either.

Naturally, because many if not most academics disdain teaching themselves, these young historians receive little or no pedagogical training. Which is doubly a shame, because most are far more committed to providing a high-quality education to their students than many of their supposed superiors.

These people represent the future of the academy, if there is such a thing, but not only are they invisible within their faculties, they are invisible within academia. They appear to be – and often are – invisible tout court to administrators and academics alike, who prefer to pretend they do not exist, because to admit there is a problem might require them to do something about it.

As with the introduction of student fees, there is something deeply nauseating about a generation which benefited from free education to degree level and generous support into postgraduate study denying precisely those same opportunities to their children. This is not a new phenomenon. There are none who guard their position in society so jealously as the nouveau riche.

By the time the second term of the early-career researcher’s contract begins their minds will be focused on gaining the next nine-month job. It is an intellectual environment in which publication, that perverse desiderata of today’s academic world, becomes almost impossible. Never mind the fact that publication in a ‘good’ journal can take up to 18 months.

Again and again, talking to early-career researchers, I hear the same stories. Four moves in five years. Five moves in seven. Young academics are expected to uproot repeatedly, often internationally, too, in order to maintain the hope of a career. For most, this is destructive of their personal lives and their ability to develop research that will help them progress. For some, who have families or other dependents to care for, it is impossible.

Then there is the money. As a University and College Union survey recently revealed, over 40 per cent of higher education and further education staff on short-term or zero-hour contracts have struggled to pay bills. Some 30 per cent earn less than £1,000 a month. This is in a sector where the average senior academic salary in the UK for 2013-14 was £82,545 for men (women averaged £10k less). It is a sector in which the amount spent on administration – £4.7bn – dwarfs that spent on the humanities at £0.9bn.

To what end has such a system developed? No end. That is what is most contemptible about it. To save a little money, perhaps. More generally, to satisfy some well-paid administrators and civil servants that all is well, when all the evidence that cannot be fed into Excel spreadsheets suggests that the opposite is true.

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