A few brief comments – since I have now finished writing my unashamedly inaccessible and impactless piece on different approaches to reading Thucydides in modern political theory – on a far more important and serious issue than my uncontrollable envy of Leicester archaeologists. A story in yesterday’s Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/feb/04/academic-casual-contracts-higher-education) offered a reminder of something that most of us in universities know about but, for various reasons, prefer not to dwell on too much: the increasing dependence of the whole enterprise on casualised labour, fixed-term research and teaching fellows. This is certainly a problem for those individuals who are stuck in such posts, and for those (including at least some academics in permanent positions) who are concerned about them; but it’s also a reflection of wider, equally worrying changes in the modern university, which aren’t always so easy to spot as they creep up on us gradually.
Temporary positions have of course been around for a long time – my own career started as six-month maternity cover at what was then the University of Wales Lampeter, while plenty of my fellow graduates went on to junior research fellowships – but there definitely seem to be a lot more of them today. A lot of the time, this looks like a good thing, and I’m sure I’m not the only established academic who’s spent time trying to persuade potential donors to support a postdoctoral fellowship and writing proposals for research projects to include a postdoc position, not to mention commenting on graduate students’ draft research proposals and writing references for them for such positions. After all, a paid position usually looks better than nothing; the higher the expectations in appointments for permanent positions (depending on where we are in the REF cycle, maybe only candidates who already have a portfolio of heavyweight publications will be considered), the greater the need for some means of supporting the best students between their doctorate and the point when they become serious candidates for something longer-term. In the meantime, it’s an opportunity for these ‘early-career academics’, as they’re sometimes called, to continue their research, start getting published and/or build up teaching experience, all of which will stand them in good stead for the future. Yes, it can all go wrong if they don’t manage to keep up their research and so aren’t in any better position when the fellowship finishes, but that is seen as a local problem – the failure of the individual postdoc and/or the unreasonable demands of the project leader or the department – rather than as in any way a systematic failure.
To consider whether it might actually be a systematic failure, we have to think about this from the perspective of the system. My touchstone here is an excellent article by David Harvie on ‘Alienation, Class and Enclosure in UK Universities’, published over a decade ago in Capital & Class (download). Harvie’s argument is that UK universities have been undergoing a revolution in their mode of production, from feudalism (a loose community of scholars owing ill-defined allegiance and duties to departmental head, carrying on their research as artisans) to capitalism (strict regulation and control of academic activities, research outputs quantified and measures taken to maximise returns, growth of class divisions between research capitalists – controlling grants, buying themselves out of teaching to do more research to get more grants – and research proletarians – everyone else). Over the last ten years, this analysis has seemed to me ever more cogent and persuasive.
Now, if we think of universities in terms of capitalism, it’s difficult not to associate ‘casualisation of labour’ with the idea of ‘flexible accumulation’, the term that various economists have coined to characterise its current mode of operation (I generally rely on the clear summary in David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity). Enterprises outsource more and more of their activities as a means of lowering costs, and rely increasingly on casual labour rather than permanent employees – they can downsize or increase their workforce quickly in response to changing market conditions, and abdicate responsibility for things like training and pensions, passing these on to the individual and/or to the state. Salaries and working conditions can be squeezed, because of the constant competition for short-term jobs – there will always be someone else willing to take the position. There have been plenty of studies showing how this approach is actually in many respects bad for the firms themselves and their productivity, in terms of the loss of employee loyalty, problems with training etc., but as long as profit margins are the main drivers of decision-making, this appears as a rational strategy.
Is the expansion of casual labour in the universities any different? Teaching fellowships are the obvious example, bringing in (cheaper) short-term workers to allow permanent staff to pursue their research, go on leave etc. The alternative would be for a department to employ sufficient permanent staff that it would always be possible to cover the teaching and other duties of whoever was on leave in any given year – but such a department might well look over-staffed in relation to its student numbers, it would be vulnerable to changes in research grants and other income, and anyway the expansion of student numbers and changes in working conditions mean that no one actually feels that they have any spare time to rally round and cover the duties of absent colleagues. So, the pressure is always for like-for-like (except younger and cheaper) replacement of those on leave, and of course the replacement, because s/he is on a teaching contract, can be made to teach more classes and so relieve everyone’s load. The more the system demands research outputs and research grants, the more demand for leave and teaching relief from everyone, and the more demand for casual labour. Increases in student numbers and even increases in student fees will doubtless exacerbate this: permanent staff will have to spend more time on teaching (more students, greater expectations from students) and hence demand more research leave, and at the same time there’s more money to buy in replacements.
Research fellowships may be a slightly different matter, at least in the humanities – the sort of career research fellow that’s found in the sciences is almost unknown with us, not least because we simply don’t have enough of that sort of research project to sustain many such careers, and experience seems after a certain point to count for less than freshness, so a new generation of postdocs rapidly displaces those who’ve already had one or two such positions, who either have to find permanent positions or drop out of academia. That, I suppose, is the problem; giving a bright postdoc an extra couple of years to work on their research scarcely appears as a bad thing for anyone, but it is at the same time a process for weeding out the field of candidates for proper academic jobs. Simply having a PhD and excellent references, and even a couple of publications in the pipelines, has long since ceased to be sufficient to guarantee an academic career, or even a postdoctoral position; having a postdoctoral position and actual publications isn’t enough to guarantee such a career either.
We all know this, but the system looks like a sufficiently open competition to assuage our concerns – surely the best will get jobs, and the rest have at least enjoyed a few more years of academic life before being cast out into the world? Of course ‘the rest’ includes a whole load of people who would be perfectly good academics if only they got the opportunity. They might well have been better off if they’d quit a few years’ earlier – but that would reduce departments’ choice in selecting their new colleagues and successors, looking for the best prospects rather than choosing only from those stubborn and/or ascetic and/or independently wealthy enough to last the course and get themselves into a position where they will at least be considered.
What’s the alternative? Increasing the permanent staff in order to reduce reliance on casual labour means fewer opportunities for postdocs – but if there will be no jobs at the end anyway, is that necessarily a bad thing? I’d be interested to know what people in this position actually think. It’s difficult to avoid the pessimistic conclusion that, if this is a systematic problem, then only a transformation of the entire system may be able to solve it – the problem of casualisation is part of the more general transformation of higher education, above all the regulation of research. the sole consolation I can think of at the moment is that we may, in this respect, possibly, be better off than in Germany, where the number of proper permanent positions is even smaller, and it was noted by a colleague that every ancient history professor in the country, and all their assistants, could be killed in a massive plane crash, and there would still be far too many highly-qualified applicants for every position. The risk is that at some point an aggrieved postdoc may indeed decide that a cull of the older-generation, hogging all the permanent jobs, is precisely what is needed.
At one point in writing this I used the term ‘early career academic’, which is often applied to postdocs in such positions. I think it’s meant well, emphasising that they are no longer students but proper colleagues who just happen still to have most of their hair and figures. But in the context of this discussion, it’s difficult not to see the phrase as either absurdly optimistic or deeply deceptive.