The debate in History over early careers

by J. Saunders 

In July I attended a conference at Birmingham University on “Rethinking Modern British Studies”. Having submitted my thesis the week before, I had not been plugged in enough to actually read the conference materials, and so had missed the working paper written by a group of doctoral students at Birmingham discussing the position of postgraduates in modern academia, along with the pressures of overwork, funding, job scarcity and precarious labour.

This paper was the starting point for discussion in the first session of the conference. The small, stuffy lecture theatre crackled with energy as young scholars expressed their anxieties, fears and anger, and as senior academics expressed their dismay about the present state of the university. This energy seemed to sustain itself over the course of the next three days, culminating in a barnstorming speech against the injustices facing early career researchers in Laura Sefton’s contribution to the closing plenary.

The conversation continued over the months to follow, with the opening session referenced in response blogs on the Modern British Studies website. The debate intensified in the last week – particularly on social media  with a History Today article by Matthew Lyons (which got a lot of people’s hackles up), a widely criticised article in Times Higher Ed, and two generally praised articles on Historylab plus, one offering a personal perspective, the other looking to historicise the true extent of casualisation.

History then, is now having a sustained debate over what casualised work of various kinds might mean for the sector. Moreover, despite a couple of contributors to the discussion getting some flak (for a divisive attitude towards either postgraduate researchers or permanent staff), there has been a consensus that expecting people to spend years uprooting themselves for temporary contracts and casual work needs to change.

It is vital that we have this debate. However, to me there’s a very clear absence in the discussion. Framing the issue around “Early Career Researchers” involves the unhelpful assumption that this is primarily about one category of academic workers being subject to precarious conditions at one particular part of their life cycle. As such, it very easily degenerates into either career advice, competing interpretations of what’s going on in academia, or utopian schemes for mitigating the worst effects of the “early career gap”. There has been comparatively little attempt to contextualise these experiences, explain the social processes that have produced them and to discuss how we might go beyond petitioning in trying to bring about change.

Understanding casualisation in higher education involves looking beyond our “careers” and thinking about economic rationalities. Academics are workers in institutions that are rapidly “rationalising” their employment practices in line with market imperatives. Your Head of Department didn’t advertise for a 9-month teaching fellow on a 0.4 contract out of callousness, nor do they expect their Graduate Teaching Assistants to do unpaid labour because they think postgraduates are non-people; they did it because that is what the pressures of the modern university encourage them to do. The same logic that sees universities outsource their security, catering and cleaning staff, relegating them to second-class citizens without a living wage or proper access to pensions, sick pay and holidays, sees universities pressuring permanent staff (both academic and admin) to take on ever increasing workloads, and to casualise much of their teaching. A benevolent HoD or senior administrator might stem the tide, but the waters will continue to rise.

Precarious conditions are not a career issue, they’re a social issue and whilst worrying about it as an “early career” problem might help me through the minefield (I’m currently unemployed), that general context of market-led pressure on higher education workers is just going to follow me wherever I go. If I get the hallowed “permanent academic job” it’ll be there in the form of bullying me for grant income or forcing me to take on enormous workloads. If I don’t, and stay in academia, I might remain in permanent academic precarity, as an hourly-paid lecturer (HPL) or even on a zero-hours contract, something post-1992 institutions in particular make ever increasing use of.

Moreover, good career advice for me will do nothing to stem the ways in which precarity reinforces privilege in higher education. We all know the grim reading that the demographics of our profession make in terms of social mobility, as well as gender and racial equality. It would be beyond complacent to pretend that both the additional extras (publication records, etc.), the subjective nature of hiring (who do you know?) and the expectation of long periods of casual or unpaid work, don’t hugely contribute to this pattern of exclusion, with students from less affluent backgrounds punished at every stage of the long road to an academic career, for a lack of time, financial resources and contacts.

Since all of these problems are social, the solution to them likewise has to be social. Sympathetic departments might alleviate a few minor gripes, but it’s ultimately not going transform a sector in which all the economic logic points towards more casualisation and stricter hierarchies. We need to accept that we and our institutions have some contradictory interests when it comes to our working conditions, especially with regard to “flexibility” and productivity. In such a situation we need a collective mechanism by which academic workers can look to challenge the unfairness and discrimination inherent in casualised conditions, and to democratise the university.

The conversation that broke out from the Modern British Studies Working Paper shows the power of discussing these issues collectively. When we come together and talk as precarious and more secure academic workers, we begin to understand the problem and to offer solutions, inching towards a consensus. This potentially shows the way forward if we could generate these conversations on a national and inter-disciplinary basis. This, in part, is what the FACE network intends to do, ambitiously pushing for a national campaign organising thousands of university staff  casualised, permanent and everything in between – with branches in every institution able to generate a democratic discussion on what we want the university as a workplace to look like. A campaign that fights to force university employers to adopt better employment practices at national level, with local groups making sure they exist on the ground. A social movement that means we can take collective direct action in support of democratically-agreed demands, rather than just begging for sympathy from institutions whose hands are often tied by the cold logic of the market.

Photo: Bound, by gfpeck