Saturday, July 14, 2012

What's wrong with academia? Part 1: Job security

Update, 17th March 2021: I wrote this post nearly a decade ago, and have since become convinced that it's the single worst thing I've ever written. This is especially true given that, at the time, I'd recently taken up a permanent position myself, so it's sick-makingly tone-deaf. Unsupported assertions about 'human nature', unironically appealing to 'meritocracy'... honestly, it'd be better for my reputation if I just deleted it, or retconned it à la Dom Cummings. I'm leaving it here only for the sake of intellectual honesty and accountability. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the fierce reactions this post engendered (see the comments), I never ended up writing parts 2 and 3.

What follows is a collection of musings on various topics that have come to bother me during my first six months in a lectureship. In the interests of structure, I'll focus on three main areas: job security, the relationship between teaching and research, and publishing.

If you're familiar with my general left-wing leanings, you might think you can already anticipate the bones of contention that form the skeleton of this blog post. With regard to job security, for instance, one might expect me to bewail the decreasing availability of permanent positions; and one might expect me to extol the virtues of the oft-unnoticed synergies between teaching and research. In both these cases I will do neither of these things; if anything, the complete opposite viewpoint will emerge. (With regard to publishing, given my own editorial activities, the thread of argument will be a bit more predictable.)

Whether any of this is consistent with the aforementioned left-wing leanings or with my life philosophy in general, or whether I should instead be counted among the Hippocrates, is an interesting question. I'm convinced that my stance is consistent, but that's a discussion for another time; in any case, I do welcome thoughts on this or any other part of the post.

1. Job security

As I've mentioned, it's fashionable and commonplace to find the decreased availability of permanent academic positions deeply worrying - so much so that it's entered into mainstream media discourse. Now this seems to go hand in hand (at the moment, at least) with a general decline in the availability of academic jobs tout court. I'd be the first to say that the latter is an extremely worrying trend, especially when coupled with the general philistinism as regards academia in the UK. Consider the following comment, a response to a Guardian article about the AHRC supposedly being told to study the Big Society:
The country spends £100m on 'arts and humanities research'???

Please cut it all and let's see if we miss it....
Worryingly, this comment is 'recommended' by 62 people... and this is the Guardian we're talking about, not the Daily Fail. And in the meantime, we pay £2 billion a year for a collection of Cold War relics to gather dust, and some people defend this with their lives. Ho hum.

So I'm against a reduction in jobs across academia as a whole. However, this issue is logically separate from the question of whether those jobs should be permanent or temporary/fixed-term. What's more, I've never heard a good argument for permanent academic positions.

Permanent positions make a necessity out of virtue. They are disproportionate post hoc rewards for research achievements, and give no incentive to advance the state of knowledge (which I take to be the primary function of academia as a whole). Let's say you write a decent PhD thesis and a few publications, meet some nice people at conferences, get lucky, and then end up with a job for life. Why is this considered to be a good thing? From that point onwards, it's human nature to kick back and do nothing. From my observations of other supposedly research-active staff (admittedly a small and varied group), if this happens, the worst that the university can do to you is shout at you a little bit. But because you're contractually protected, you can more or less continue to do nothing with impunity.

But let's say that's not the case. Let's say that instead you sit down and churn out the four publications needed to become REFable every few years - or even more. Where is the incentive to innovate, to produce research that will change the state of ideas?

Worse is that academic advancement (at least in the fields with which I'm familiar in the arts and humanities) is still so closely tied to age. 'Being on the ladder', many reflexively call it, and with good reason. Once you're in at the ground floor, every decade or so, a promotion comes along and you go upstairs. You never go downstairs again. Who ever heard of a reader being demoted to lecturer? Or a professor to reader? Why not? Furthermore, ask yourself how many professors you've met who are under the age of 40. Then think about who's doing the top quality research in your field right now - the work you're really excited about, the work that is changing the way people think. How old are they? What is their job title? Whatever the outcome, chances are this group of researchers won't be anything like coextensive with the 50-something professors who have climbed highest on the ladder. This fact seems to be so obvious that I'm amazed at the level of acceptance that exists for it. At best one can conclude that pay in academia isn't in any way performance-related.

My solution? Well, it's not a novel one. One's position at a given time should be related to two things: a) the quality of the work one is doing at that time (in practice, since this is difficult to assess, a fixed time span immediately preceding can serve as a proxy) and b) the quality of one's research proposal. There was a massive outcry a while back when King's College London threatened to make everyone reapply for their own jobs. In principle, as long as the total number of jobs and amount of funding stays proportionate, I think this is an excellent idea. It forces researchers to think about exactly what they're doing and why - and to up their game in order to stay in it. I can see no harm in stipulating that academic positions last for a maximum fixed term of five years. In fact, a lot of good would surely come out of it.

Now one could object that the proposal I'm making here is precisely what grant funding is supposed to achieve in the UK. My response is twofold. Firstly, grant funding (again, at least in the arts and humanities) constitutes only a small amount of the money academics receive: I don't have numbers, but I'd wager that far more is paid on an annual basis to salaried, tenured professors. Therefore, the grant funding solution doesn't go nearly far enough. Secondly, the grant application system is so massively broken in the UK as to be almost completely worthless from the point of view of advancing the state of knowledge. The reason is a classic Catch-22. Grant applications to bodies like the AHRC are like double-blind peer review - except that, crucially, the reviewers know exactly who you are. They need to know this (so I'm told) because they need to assess your suitability for leading a project team, and for managing grant money. How is this assessed? Well, of course in terms of your experience of leading a project team, and of managing grant money. If speculative business financing in general worked on this basis... well, it wouldn't. Work, that is. No interesting project would ever get off the ground. The emphasis on grant-handling experience is particularly bemusing in light of the fact that actually AHRC-funded projects often have no obvious output or endpoint at all. (I use the term 'output' non-traditionally here, to refer to 'any resource that advances the state of knowledge' rather than the more typical 'publications'.) It seems that the AHRC and bodies like it have little concept of what it means for a project to be successful; which makes it all the more odd that they set such high stock in the ability of the project leader to achieve success. (Once again, let me emphasize that publications in and of themselves are NOT 'success'. This will become a lot clearer in part 3.)

The preceding two paragraphs are perhaps a bit deliberately polemical, but you should at least be disabused of the notion that funding bodies are the great levellers. Even if funding bodies played a significant enough role in actual funding to be the deal-breaker, they couldn't vouchsafe the advancement of knowledge because their priorities are wrong and their funding criteria flawed.

The moral of all of this? Academics make such a big deal out of meritocracy in principle that it's hard to see how things could have gone so drastically wrong. Throughout your school, undergraduate and graduate career you're fighting to jump through the next hoop, to advance yourself, to educate yourself. Then when you enter the job market the logic is reversed: you find a hole to crawl into, where you'll be paid a reasonable sum of money. And if you churn out enough publications, take care not to ruffle any feathers in teaching or administration, and maybe get a grant or two, you'll probably get promoted every ten years or so. Whatever happened to onward and upward?


Christine said...

I have been thinking about the same thing: Why hire a professor for life? Why not make him/her re-apply every 5-6-7 years? Over and over again we see that the system is being abused, with effects not only for that particular sub-field, but for larger groups of researchers as well. The risk obviously is that it becomes easier to cut back on funding when times are rought. Who cares if a 5 year-term professorship is removed? Nobody, except the professors in question ...

karamonde said...

I started writing a long reply but I decided to boil it down to: well written article, I agree with your points, you propose Arts and Humanities funding to be regulated in an equivalent way to Sciences, which has become fiendishly hard and almost taking a "flavour of the month" approach which I believe in maybe 10-15 years will in fact HURT science as it will be lacking the fundamental, basic research. A bit like what will happen to drug companies when the patents run out as they have not focused on ground level research for the last 20 years. Orestis

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

"Where is the incentive to innovate, to produce research that will change the state of ideas?"

I'm happy to grant that a constant fear of being fired might be a good incentive to churn out those n papers a year. But do you really think that such conditions are likely to maximise creativity? I would say they'd lead most people to be risk-averse and look for lines of research whose results are largely predictable in advance.

Guy Emerson said...

(I'd just like to point out that the 62 'recommendations' is actually a lot less than most of the comments around it, which are in the hundreds... so things might not be quite so bad)

More generally, I wonder if such a system might encourage researchers to publish more, but less creative, work. I mean, who would be in charge of awarding these short-term posts? It couldn't be professors, or else they could just keep re-appointing each other. And if it's an external body, it could lead to the same problems you point out about grant funding.

That withstanding, I think you make some excellent points.

Darkness and Light said...

This is an interesting debate, which appears to have struck a sore spot with me; I drafted a response and it seemed far too large to fit into a blog comment! I'm going to email you the full thing, but I'll summarise my thoughts below for completeness...

Essentially, I cannot agree on abolishing permanent positions in academia. On a human and practical level, denying any form of job security at all levels in academia will exclude a large segment of potential academics, with the resulting loss of an important point of view. It will also increase the view that academics view themselves as different from the social mainstream, which will have implications for the philistinism you mention in your post and the general perception of the importance of research among the general public.

I would also argue that permanent senior positions involve work which is not solely based on research excellence - I believe that gathering the best researchers and resources in one place to create collaborative synergy, creating a positive work environment through effective mentoring and leadership of junior researchers and advancing the reputation as well as the state of the field all form important parts of a professors remit as well as top end research, and these goals require long-term strategic planning impossible on a short term contract. Many of these factors also depend on age and time spent in the field (contacts known, efficacy of attracting grant money) and so while age should not be the indicator by which appointments are made, older persons holding more senior positions is an effect of attending to the above.

I would suggest that permanent contracts with continuous performance review based on how the academic contributes to the department as well as research quality (and not using publications as an indicator, as you rightly point out!) would be a more effective way of achieving greater academic efficacy through a reduction in free-loading.

George said...

Thanks, all. I've now written a response to the comments I've received here and on Facebook: