The new government’s announcements of forthcoming changes to the workings of British higher education have inspired much debate. The major newspapers have largely focused on ‘the student experience’, while neglecting the role of universities as centres of research in the humanities and social sciences. Academic bodies have voiced concerns about the changing nature of universities and the respective implications for their disciplines. Among all the clamour, the situation of early-career academics has unfortunately not received much interest at all.
The privatisation and full-on commercialisation of higher education currently underway seem likely to exacerbate trends towards a stratification of ‘the lecturer experience’ that have been unfolding for a number of years already. A select few PhD graduates, who have received their academic socialisation in elite universities, will be able to develop academic careers in those same institutions. For them, the integration of research and teaching will continue to be a meaningful concept. Another few will be able to move into permanent lectureships at the new second and third-tier teaching universities. They will spend their careers as teaching drones, reproducing second-hand sociological knowledge from textbooks for a mass audience of student-consumers. The ‘rest’ will either form an academic proletariat of part-time, short-term teachers and research assistants or drop out of academia altogether.
Such developments seem likely because many sociologists, in their roles as university functionaries, have long since subscribed to the ethos of the neoliberal marketplace that is so evident in the government’s policy proposals. This is most evident in one particularly emblematic development: the rise of the research grant as the key indicator of academic prowess and entry ticket for a meaningful academic career. Virtually all advertisements of lectureships at UK universities over the past years required candidates to show that they have made thousands or tens of thousands in grant funds. Those advertisements were written by sociologists and endorsed by the hiring sociology departments, and they may thus be read as a significant indicator of their professional ethos. The logic underlying the primacy of the grant is unclear, given that many sociological research projects work just fine without such funding and that many senior professors have built their careers and often considerable contributions to sociology without such requirements. Perhaps the rise of the grant as the alpha and omega of institutionalised sociology is simply due to a tendency towards passive acquiescence to the demands for financial profits imposed by the relatively new and now well established class of non-academic university managers.
In any case, most junior academics and recent PhD graduates are destined to fail in their quest for the grant: There just are not enough to go round, and most accessible funding schemes (e.g. ESRC postdocs, the British Academy small grants, etc.) have recently been cut. With no grant to show, the doors to a stable academic career are likely to remain shut. What is left is a patchwork of part-time and short-term teaching commitments, jumping from one position to the next, while hoping that the next grant application will finally be successful or that the first monograph will be a huge success.
The campaign which UCU has been running for a number of years against the casualisation of academic labour is a testament to this trend. Institutionalised sociology has had little to say about it in the past, and it remains to be seen whether it will have anything to say about its exacerbation in the impending era of ‘cuts’. In any case, recent PhD graduates intent on an academic career will face a terrible job market, but few trends that are genuinely new. The commodification of academic labour has been in the making for a long time, with the acknowledgement and acquiescence of many sociology departments and academic managers around the country. The new government’s policy proposals only represent an intellectually honest and more comprehensive articulation of this trend.
So where did all the sociologists go? I concluded my PhD in 2007/2008 in a large department that prides itself on being among the very best in the country and had, at the time, about a hundred doctoral students. Of all the PhD graduates in my commencement year and the adjacent years, only a bare handful managed to find lectureships and establish themselves through research and publications. This applies to both my department and acquaintances from other sociology departments around the country. The overwhelming majority have since drifted out of academia or barely subsist on the patchwork of unstable jobs outlined above. This lack of achievement cannot easily be explained by a shortage of scholarly talent – I have in mind prize winners, recipients of a variety of very competitive scholarships, and graduates who passed their vivas at leading universities with no corrections. The explanation rather is to be found among universities and sociology departments who recruit too many talented individuals to pursue doctorates without subsequently offering them opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the discipline.
The ‘cuts’ are going to make this pattern worse, but they are unlikely to change it. What remains are questions: How much scholarly potential has, speculatively, been lost by driving talented graduates to the margins of academia, or beyond? How can this loss of potential be compensated for? What will happen to institutionalised sociology if it lets itself be driven more and more by the survival-of-the-fittest logic of the neoliberal marketplace? Finally, why has this development not sparked more concern, and why is it hardly talked about? Does anybody out there really care? While the cuts will only make a bad situation worse for early-career sociologists, surely they could also motivate established, institutionalised sociologists to concerted action.
This blog-post was originally posted on ‘Sociology and the Cuts’.