Can vice-chancellors ever really know what it’s like for emerging researchers and precariat postdocs?
I was reading two vice-chancellors discuss how to take pressure off young academics the other week and it made me increasingly ragey.
Set-ups like this are doomed in many ways because you’re asking people with incredible privilege and a fair whack of authority and power to empathise with emerging scholars who have little to none of those elements.
I’ve let this #headasplodey-ness simmer for a couple of weeks because it’s all too easy for outrage to rule, and I had to admit that my initial outrage was nothing new. People have been outraged for ages about the fact that privileged, executive managerial sorts have the nerve to comment – often gauchely – on what the situation is like for those most vulnerable in their organisations.
The inclusion of the mini-interview at the end, which included the vice-chancellors sharing with us where they were holidaying was just a smidge off-colour, I thought, given the preceding verbiage about difficulty of securing positions, restrictions on resources and subsequent appointments, etc.
So, I sat on my hands for a bit.
After mulling over my outrage about the interview article, these were the particular issues that stayed with me:
The conflation of early career researchers and “young academics”
Throughout, the interviewer talks about young academics. The vice-chancellors refer, apparently interchangeably, to early career researchers (ECRs) and young academics. The people they’re talking about in those groups may not actually overlap that much. The average age at PhD completion in the UK is 26-27 (Age comparison – EUI). This would mean that those completing first or second postdocs would be into their 30s, and many would be older. Are these considered ‘young’? What kinds of assumptions are being made because of this assumed youth of early career researchers? Aside from one specific question on Brexit, it didn’t discuss scholars from other parts of the world – non-UK and non-EU – who might be early career researchers there, many of whom would definitely be in older age brackets (Australians commencing their PhD, for example, average about 33).
The fact that the vice-chancellors in that article are both vaunted for their comparative youth in the introductory paragraphs in taking up these roles just adds another problematic layer here. The advice they’re being asked for will apply to those who may not be that many years behind them, so the cross-generational hindsight that is usually being sought in these contexts does not hold.
That talented researchers are taken care of (but the others…well)
The overall tone of the interview is that if you don’t make it in the system then it is your fault. That is wrong. So wrong.
To state that “talented researchers” could be taken care of implies that those who aren’t supported were not talented.
To respond to the increasing and sometimes farcical level of metricisation and auditing that universities function under across research and teaching with “I don’t think there is anywhere to hide now in universities”? That’s just obnoxious, right? It implies that universities have been a place where under-performers or not-so-good academics “hide”. I can’t even…
The university has no role in putting pressure on their researchers
The repeated statements that someone else needs to fix this situation for early career researchers really got up my goat. Sure, there are things that funding bodies and the government could change to ameliorate some of the pressures on early career researchers.
But, hmmm, if we’re talking about working conditions and quality of working life, who’s actually responsible for that? Maybe the employer? You know, the one that gets the value out of that staff member’s labour and productivity, and climbs that shiny unicorn ladder of university rankings on the backs of researchers and their work? That employer. Vice-chancellors have the power to create and enable huge change and distinct cultural shifts in their institutions. We see it all the time around us. Please don’t pretend that you, as vice-chancellors, are but pawns in this game. Universities may not control the whole game but they are a big part of the freaking chessboard on which it sits.
The early career researchers in our institutions aren’t just feeling pressure from funding bodies and government. I would argue that the biggest source of their anxiety and feelings of pressure come from their own institutions and senior research leaders. What messages are being communicated about sharing, productivity, contribution and collegiality? What kind of a scholarly culture is supported and rewarded? Who counts?
On this point, I’ll end with one of the vice-chancellors’ spectacularly tone-deaf response to the survey about plummeting staff morale. Many of the staff thought that the university was being run too much like a business. After saying some predictable but relatively meaningless stuff about really listening, the vice-chancellor says (proving that he hasn’t really listened): “On everything that matters – our performance, our profile, our ability to attract students – we are doing well” [my emphasis]. If that many of your staff are telling you they’re desperately unhappy about the state of their institution and their place in it, you are not doing well. Not at all.
Assumed mobility – again!
Pretty tired of this assumption, really, and there’s plenty of critique about it. I’ll just quote a section from a recent interview post with historian Dr Andre Brett:
Academia places a premium on personal mobility, to a point that it sometimes becomes a ridiculous fetish—an expectation that if you haven’t moved interstate or internationally at least once, you’re not serious about a career. This strains your relationships, scatters your friendships, and places tremendous burdens on families, especially those with school-age children. (Emerging historians – Andre Brett)
This enduring attitude of assumed academic mobility contributes to the inequity and disregard of the social costs of the academic system. When we assume that everyone can move anywhere to follow career opportunities, we overlook many considerations about resources, care networks, partners’ work considerations and a researcher’s health. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these dynamics are highly gendered.
Going to town on this one article seems a bit of overkill, but I think it got to me so much because the vice-chancellors presumptions and ‘advice’ encapsulate so much that’s wrong with the system in which we operate. Having university leaders say that other organisations should take care of their own university staff better is kind of outrageous. Why aren’t they taking care of their staff better? Why do so many of them, who espouse the mantra of “our greatest asset is our people” at every staff gathering, not treat their greatest assets better?
Unfortunately, I think we know the answers to these questions to a large degree, and they’re a cloak of key performance indicators and brandished university league tables that overlook the humanity in our system. It’s a question of prioritising the metrics rather than considering the actual work that researchers do/research does.
We often overlook the fact that we make the sector what it is. Always gesturing to others as responsible for the untenable and inhumane career conditions our colleagues work under is naive at best, and dishonest and hypocritical at worst.