It is encouraging that the mainstream media seem to have noticed the struggle that so many recent PhD graduates are facing when it comes to finding employment. For instance, the Guardian yesterday published an interesting article, and a piece published some weeks ago in Times Higher Education offers some very perceptive insights into the origins of the crisis. It is discouraging that the authors of those publications generally seem to feel that it is best for them to remain anonymous. Consider the two pieces I am using as examples here. They make their case in fairly abstract terms, they do not criticise particular institutions or individuals, they do not use inflammatory language, and they make arguments that seem hard to refute for anyone even remotely familiar with the realities of academic life. Academic life is all about the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. So why is it that two seemingly harmless newspaper articles seem to have transcended the boundaries of free speech?
The statement of anonymity in the THE piece offers the first clue. It is worded as follows: “The author has asked not to be identified in case this further affects his career prospects.” So, obviously, if one wishes to have an academic career in the UK, it may be wise not to discuss certain problems involved in this endeavour. Actually, though, the author does much to recommend himself to prospective employers. He states that he has degrees from internationally leading universities, as well as a track record of publications and funding. He also demonstrates his capacity for a trenchant analysis of organisational culture. This analysis, however, might mark him as a troublemaker. His core arguments are that established academics may neglect discussions about their students’ grim employment prospects because they stand to gain from their labour and because those who have departed from academia are subsequently regarded as irrelevant failures. By making such claims openly in a widely read magazine, the author suggests that he might behave in a non-conformist manner and challenge the powers that be. British academia is built around standards of professional practice in the forms of accepted theories, methodologies of enquiry, and so forth. British academia, however, is also constructed as a hierarchical structure. These hierarchies are in part a legacy of the medieval university system that has survived to date. In part, they are a consequence of the colonisation of the university by the authoritarian mindset of the corporate world. Academics today are expected to know their place in the corporate hierarchy of their university and be discreet about the university’s internal affairs. The abundance of advice on how academics should manage their online profile on social networking websites etc. is a case in point. There is thus very little room left for critical and public reflections about the state of one’s profession. Free speech does not end here, but those who exercise this right must be aware of the fact that they are compromising their career. Nobody wants to hire a troublemaker.
Nobody wants to hire a failure either. This might be why the author of yesterday’s piece in The Guardian chose not to reveal his name. His portrayal of academic life is not very critical at all. He praises the warmth of the university where he studied and states that it validated his way of thinking. He mentions certain barriers to employment that young scholars face, but he does not challenge them. He does, however, suggest that he has now effectively left academia, receiving job seekers’ allowance and suggestions that he might work as a cleaner or checkout operator at Tesco. Stating this openly may be quite lethal to his career prospects, as, more and more, only very particular trajectories of professional development are regarded as markers of employability. A PhD must be followed fairly quickly by postdocs or employment at universities of outstanding reputation, and big grants and publications on trendy topics in highly-ranked journals must be churned out quickly, for a young scholar to be regarded as lecturer material. Not much else (nothing else?) counts.
In so far as my preceding arguments hold true, they raise certain questions. First of all, it seems that many PhD graduates are forced into the troubled world of unemployment while, at the same time, being denied a public voice. How can they gain a voice, and what can universities and established academics do to this end? Second, how is it that extremely narrow standards of professional legitimacy are used to judge young scholars who simply cannot meet them, regardless of any efforts they might make? If such narrow standards are indeed being used, why do established academics, who should know better, regard them as valid? What can be done to change these standards? Finally, is it still possible for young scholars in precarious circumstances to mobilise and bring about positive change in the ways in which academia works? If this is not possible, what will happen to the lost generation of scholars which British universities seem to be happily producing?
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