Recently, The Independent published a brief piece on the ‘slave-like’ working conditions of PhD students at UK universities:
“Postgraduate research students are increasingly being used as ‘slave labour’ to cut teaching costs at universities across the UK, a London conference heard yesterday. They warned teaching conditions were getting dramatically worse as academic cuts bite and universities are under mounting pressure to cut costs.”
This sounds dramatic, but it’s hardly news – the problem has been around for years, and it’s not unique to Britain. The issue is serious, as PhD students are also facing mounting pressure to complete their theses quickly and build a profile of publications, teaching, and grant funding that will allow them to win employment in spite of stiff competition for few jobs. If the issue is serious and if it has been around for a long time, the question arises why dissent did not emerge earlier and more forcefully. In fact, many controversial changes have been forced on British academics with surprisingly little resistance. In other cases, efforts to resist have been quite unsuccessful. For example, the longstanding UCU campaign to eliminate precarious employment at UK universities has reported some minor successes, but the problem is still endemic. In fact, on the whole, academics often seem reluctant to discuss the state of their own profession. Even British sociologists, who, according BSA president John Brewer, are much concerned with the study of organisational life in the current period of crisis, do not offer much in the way of commentary on pressing issues, such as PhD students’ dim prospects for academic employment and sometimes parlous working conditions. At least, their urgency notwithstanding, these issues never come to be the marquee topics of the annual BSA conference or other major events. What might explain this lack of open and controversial debate about the state of the scholarly professions?
To begin with, public life in many nominally democratic societies is currently witnessing a trend towards the delegitimisation, and part of the official response to recent demonstrations by students and academics, from London to Quebec, may be seen in this context. Universities, according to Henry Giroux, are now ‘brand-name corporations’, whose managers and marketing officers are highly sensitive to any outbursts that might tarnish the brand.
Moreover, Western academia is not quite a meritocracy, and it is not organised according to democratic principles. Bodies of knowledge gain currency and academics gain prestige in part because they are promoted within networks of contacts that are grounded in intellectual affinity and personal sympathy. Academic positions in turn are awarded to those whose work is demonstrably recognised within such networks: Being unknown in academia is worse than having enemies, and both may severely tarnish one’s career prospect. Due to this importance of personalised networks, academia operates in terms of hierarchical relationships which encourage conformism and, on occasion, may become exploitative. Take a look at this website of the European University Institute. Meant to provide students with guidance as to their job prospects, this overview of academic systems in various countries in remarkably candid:
“Informal processes play an important role to obtain an academic position in Germany. While academic posts are advertised in newspapers such as Die Zeit , potential incumbents are often already informally decided upon in advance and there is a long tradition of approaching potential candidates informally to invite them to apply. The supervisor’s role is therefore decisive for the career of a young scholar.”
“Access to the academic career and then progression along the career ladder is strongly conditioned by the fact that the Italian academic system is not meritocratic, and this ends up often being a barrier. Italian academia has the reputation of being highly closed and the professoriate is sometimes referred to as ‘the mafia of the barons’. In fact, it is the candidate who beforehand has the support of the majority of the jury who usually wins a competition. Quite often the composition of the jury is negotiated beforehand to make a specific candidate win. The intrinsic quality of a candidate is of far less importance. Outsiders, not to speak of non-Italian citizens, have little or no chance.”
“One of the main problems both for foreign candidates and UK citizens is the wide use of temporary fixed-term contracts in the UK university system. It is common to have a series of fixed-term contracts even within the same institution, and can be quite difficult to secure a permanent position. To obtain a permanent position you need well documented research and teaching experience. The main barrier for obtaining a permanent position does not seem to be the lack of qualified academics but rather a lack of positions established and offered by the universities. It is cheaper for the institutions to keep staff on temporary fixed-term contracts than to promote them to permanent lecturer level.”
While it’s encouraging to see that senior academics in the UK are not likened to the godfather, the casualisation of academic labour has much the same consequences as the closure of the German or Italian system: Young academics are either lucky and well-networked enough to jump from their PhD straight into a stable lectureship, or they have to fight their way through vicious competition, jumping from temporary job to temporary job and gradually building up the contacts that may eventually lead to a job. To be sure, it is entirely possible to complete all the ‘official’ parts of a PhD outstandingly well outside such networks. However, in such cases, even a brilliant thesis may not lead to a stable job. It’s hence very important for early-career academics to acquire a well-placed mentor who is willing to introduce one into the networks that will be crucial to one’s future success.
Speaking out about controversial issues and risking alienation from mentors and other senior academics who may or may not choose to facilitate one’s career path is risky indeed. This may in part be because efforts by low-ranked academics or students to discuss controversial topics are simply not welcome. They contradict the managerial chain of command, and senior academics and managers may feel threatened. In sum, silence is golden, networks are crucial, a good reputation is essential, and alienating people through public dissent is just too dangerous. Hence, PhD students willingly take on too much teaching, and they will likely continue to do so, regardless of negative coverage in The Independent.
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