Nowhere to hide

Shots fired! Photo by Sebastian Kanczok | unsplash.com

Shots fired! Photo by Sebastian Kanczok | unsplash.com

Can vice-chancellors ever really know what it’s like for emerging researchers and precariat postdocs?

I was reading two vice-chancellors discuss how to take pressure off young academics the other week and it made me increasingly ragey.

Set-ups like this are doomed in many ways because you’re asking people with incredible privilege and a fair whack of authority and power to empathise with emerging scholars who have little to none of those elements.

I’ve let this #headasplodey-ness simmer for a couple of weeks because it’s all too easy for outrage to rule, and I had to admit that my initial outrage was nothing new. People have been outraged for ages about the fact that privileged, executive managerial sorts have the nerve to comment – often gauchely – on what the situation is like for those most vulnerable in their organisations.

The inclusion of the mini-interview at the end, which included the vice-chancellors sharing with us where they were holidaying was just a smidge off-colour, I thought, given the preceding verbiage about difficulty of securing positions, restrictions on resources and subsequent appointments, etc.

So, I sat on my hands for a bit.

After mulling over my outrage about the interview article, these were the particular issues that stayed with me:

The conflation of early career researchers and “young academics”

Throughout, the interviewer talks about young academics. The vice-chancellors refer, apparently interchangeably, to early career researchers (ECRs) and young academics. The people they’re talking about in those groups may not actually overlap that much. The average age at PhD completion in the UK is 26-27 (Age comparison – EUI). This would mean that those completing first or second postdocs would be into their 30s, and many would be older. Are these considered ‘young’? What kinds of assumptions are being made because of this assumed youth of early career researchers? Aside from one specific question on Brexit, it didn’t discuss scholars from other parts of the world – non-UK and non-EU – who might be early career researchers there, many of whom would definitely be in older age brackets (Australians commencing their PhD, for example, average about 33).

The fact that the vice-chancellors in that article are both vaunted for their comparative youth in the introductory paragraphs in taking up these roles just adds another problematic layer here. The advice they’re being asked for will apply to those who may not be that many years behind them, so the cross-generational hindsight that is usually being sought in these contexts does not hold.

That talented researchers are taken care of (but the others…well)

The overall tone of the interview is that if you don’t make it in the system then it is your fault. That is wrong. So wrong.

To state that “talented researchers” could be taken care of implies that those who aren’t supported were not talented.

To respond to the increasing and sometimes farcical level of metricisation and auditing that universities function under across research and teaching with “I don’t think there is anywhere to hide now in universities”? That’s just obnoxious, right? It implies that universities have been a place where under-performers or not-so-good academics “hide”. I can’t even…

The university has no role in putting pressure on their researchers 

The repeated statements that someone else needs to fix this situation for early career researchers really got up my goat. Sure, there are things that funding bodies and the government could change to ameliorate some of the pressures on early career researchers.

But, hmmm, if we’re talking about working conditions and quality of working life, who’s actually responsible for that? Maybe the employer? You know, the one that gets the value out of that staff member’s labour and productivity, and climbs that shiny unicorn ladder of university rankings on the backs of researchers and their work? That employer. Vice-chancellors have the power to create and enable huge change and distinct cultural shifts in their institutions. We see it all the time around us. Please don’t pretend that you, as vice-chancellors, are but pawns in this game. Universities may not control the whole game but they are a big part of the freaking chessboard on which it sits.

The early career researchers in our institutions aren’t just feeling pressure from funding bodies and government. I would argue that the biggest source of their anxiety and feelings of pressure come from their own institutions and senior research leaders. What messages are being communicated about sharing, productivity, contribution and collegiality? What kind of a scholarly culture is supported and rewarded? Who counts?

On this point, I’ll end with one of the vice-chancellors’ spectacularly tone-deaf response to the survey about plummeting staff morale. Many of the staff thought that the university was being run too much like a business. After saying some predictable but relatively meaningless stuff about really listening, the vice-chancellor says (proving that he hasn’t really listened): “On everything that matters – our performance, our profile, our ability to attract students – we are doing well” [my emphasis]. If that many of your staff are telling you they’re desperately unhappy about the state of their institution and their place in it, you are not doing well. Not at all.

Assumed mobility – again! 

Pretty tired of this assumption, really, and there’s plenty of critique about it. I’ll just quote a section from a recent interview post with historian Dr Andre Brett:

Academia places a premium on personal mobility, to a point that it sometimes becomes a ridiculous fetish—an expectation that if you haven’t moved interstate or internationally at least once, you’re not serious about a career. This strains your relationships, scatters your friendships, and places tremendous burdens on families, especially those with school-age children. (Emerging historians – Andre Brett)

This enduring attitude of assumed academic mobility contributes to the inequity and disregard of the social costs of the academic system. When we assume that everyone can move anywhere to follow career opportunities, we overlook many considerations about resources, care networks, partners’ work considerations and a researcher’s health. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these dynamics are highly gendered.


Going to town on this one article seems a bit of overkill, but I think it got to me so much because the vice-chancellors presumptions and ‘advice’ encapsulate so much that’s wrong with the system in which we operate. Having university leaders say that other organisations should take care of their own university staff better is kind of outrageous. Why aren’t they taking care of their staff better? Why do so many of them, who espouse the mantra of “our greatest asset is our people” at every staff gathering, not treat their greatest assets better?

Unfortunately, I think we know the answers to these questions to a large degree, and they’re a cloak of key performance indicators and brandished university league tables that overlook the humanity in our system. It’s a question of prioritising the metrics rather than considering the actual work that researchers do/research does.

We often overlook the fact that we make the sector what it is. Always gesturing to others as responsible for the untenable and inhumane career conditions our colleagues work under is naive at best, and dishonest and hypocritical at worst.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer based in Melbourne, Australia. She convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), is often on Twitter (@tseenster) and co-founded the Research Whisperer (theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com) with Jonathan O'Donnell.

10 Responses to Nowhere to hide

  1. Peter Bentley says:

    Thanks for the post and bringing our attention to the article.

    Clearly it is something that you care about, as I do too, but the article itself was somewhat innocuous. If you go through these sorts of articles, you are sure to find comments which misunderstand and misrepresent the situation, of which you found many.

    One you missed, which almost always comes up, is the “all staff are under pressure… many staff face insecurity… we are all in it together” mantra. Of course this is true at a superficial level, but early career academics have not had the chance to prove themselves over decades of experience and support. They also face insecurity at a time when they may seek to purchase housing and start families. They also earn a fraction of what seniors earn, often for the same work. Overall, job insecurity impacts people differently at different life stages and for those earning less and with fewer benefits (i.e. lower superannuation).

    A couple of other points came to mind. While the set-up is likely “doomed” it is also an opportunity for VCs and others to actually state what they will do about this problem, if indeed they believe it to be a problem. The problem, as you articulated, is that VCs and others frame the job insecurity as something external, beyond their control. It would be interesting to hear a VC talk about steps they actually have taken to provide greater job security. For example, Univ Melb and Univ Sydney have something like $5 billion in assets, yet they act as though they live from pay-cheque to pay-cheque, justifying individual academics to bear most of the risk in revenue fluctuation. Even less prestigious universities, like ECU, have in the realm of $1 billion. Are VCs looking to negotiate a way to sell/lease underutilised assets to free up resources in order to provide greater job security? Are VCs looking to re-centralise budgets? (decentralised budgets clearly raise the risk for departments, particularly smaller ones, who then transfer this risk on to academics). I suspect not, but perhaps there are some which are genuinely prioritising these sorts of strategies.

    Finally, as much as I sympathise with the negative characterisations of early career academic work, the conditions are not “unhumane”. We are often working in intellectually stimulating, developmental and rewarding environments, and for non-casuals, earning above median salaries. We are not flipping burgers on piece-rates. Sure, it could be better, but we are highly skilled and have many other options. But how I wish I was in the UK where “…once young academics have notched up two years’ of contracts at the same university, in the eyes of the law they are like permanent staff.”

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    • Daniella says:

      Dear Peter, I’m not entirely clear what you mean to do – do you want to point out that the Guardian article by the VCs should be read for dubious expressions in a more detailed way, or do you think Tseen Kho as author of this piece is overreacting? Because lucky as we are to be working in an intellectually stimulating environment, average income per hour for the PhD teachers at my previous institution was (depending on whose calculations you followed – several people kept track of pay vs hours of work for a term) between 3.85 pounds and 5.20 pounds (UK minimum wage for people 21yrs and over was then 6.70 pounds). And much as I and those other ECRs loved the work, being able to earn a living wage is kind of a necessity for people – unless you want to bank on still living with your parents in your late twenties, if you even have that option.

      Your final statement about academics who’ve “notched up two years’ of contracts at the same university” getting permanent contracts seems to indicate your unfamiliarity with the system, as what happens is that rather than people getting permanent jobs, most people are chucked out after two years (or, in the Netherlands, where I’m currently based and where a similar rule goes but then per contract, after two contracts). Once you’ve worked somewhere else for several months (in the Netherlands it used to be three months, now six), you can come back and get another set of temporary contracts. I know plenty of people who’ve gone through that (I was pretty much told so explicitly when starting my current job on a year-contract), and have never heard of anyone getting a permanent position (or the legal equivalent of one) by getting a third year/contract.

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      • Peter Bentley says:

        Hi Daniella,

        I don’t think your either or question is a fair one. My point is that the VC article is not particularly surprising. It is a soft interview that does not press on the relevant points raised by Tseen. It is not a serious article. It is mostly a self-reflection from VCs on their early years, which will always include some anecdotes which will not be applicable these days or perhaps ever for certain groups of people.

        On the point of “PhD teacher” wages, you misunderstood the context. I referred to “non-casuals”. This excludes PhD students teaching on hourly contracts, which is common in Australia and I believe in the UK this is what you are referring to. This group is a completely different discussion and not what I believed was the topic of the Guardian article or the blog post. Both are primarily about people with PhDs in the early stages of their academic career and who struggle to find contract continuity. In Australia, anyone with a PhD employed non-casually generally earns a base salary of $80,000 or more. This the postdoc entry level. It is well above median full-time earnings. It is a living wage by any definition.

        Secondly, and again in Australia, the PhD employment rates are extremely high. Graduate surveys and the ABS Census show this to be clearly the case. Average salaries are also high for PhDs. So, people with PhDs have options other than living with parents, which is what we would expect given that people with PhDs are extremely high ability and often also have master degrees and professional experience. Perhaps PhD employment rates in the UK are different.

        Finally, the statement about contracts was again more of a personal reflection that in Australia “rolling contracts” are very common. I was suspicious that this comment from the VC was actually a misrepresentation, but I am surprised to hear from you that indeed the sort of contract I have been on would be illegal in the UK (I am in my seventh year of contract-based employment at my university). You are correct, I was unaware of the presumably unintended consequence being that academics are not renewed for their third year due to the requirement of permanence. I would be interested in reading academic literature on this custom and practice in the UK.

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      • Daniella says:

        Hi Peter,

        As Tseen’s piece is a response to the VC article, or perhaps to its very softness, I’d say there’s certainly a connection there. The VC article isn’t all that surprising indeed, but isn’t that very point worrying? That we expect people higher up to take their institutions’ concerns, and those of its employees, lightly, or at least talk about it in the media in such a way?

        You have a point regarding the difference between irregular PhD teaching on hourly-based contracts (if there are contracts at all), but a problem at my previous institution at least, and several others I know, is that that kind of teaching is the only kind available to people just (first year or so) out of their PhDs if they want to maintain some kind of link to academic work. After that, if they’re lucky they pick up a postdoc, some more regular teaching work, or they have to do more non-related work, and it can be really difficult to find that at a decent level (for example, I applied for several jobs that asked for a master’s degree and got rejected because with my PhD, they were worried they’d lose me to a research job – this is just personal experience, of course, but I am in the middle of the ECR situation discussed. Similarly, several of the people who completed their PhD around the same time I did are doing bar work or the like because they can’t find anything more challenging or subject-related).

        Regarding literature on the custom/practice of not renewing contracts for a third year, that would be very difficult to find as in the Netherlands at least, the reason they made that law is for people to get permanent contracts sooner. With that written down, companies are not going to state explicitly that they chuck out people after the first two years. There might be some blogs or something about it somewhere. But personal experience again, I met a new colleague yesterday (I’m the new one, not she – I’ve been lucky enough to pick up a year-contract with a decent amount of teaching hours within a year of finishing the PhD and have started earlier this month) and she introduced herself and stated straight away that she’d been around for a year and a half, so that we’d only be working together for another six months.

        Just to be clear again, my experience is all in the humanities. My partner’s just finished a PhD in biomedical science (in the Netherlands) and it’s a different story there (also academic insecurity, but more jobs and also more opportunities outside of academia).

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Hi Peter – yes, we’re in vehement agreement on several points here and I just wanted to pick up on a couple of things.

      1. While the interview series and couching of the material is relatively lite-on, I think – as you say yourself above – that it was a really good (missed) chance for a VC to strut their stuff and discuss what actions there could be to address the situation. Gesturing at someone else, or another org, to solve what besets ECRs is pretty weak. Picking up on something you say to Daneilla below, I read these interviews as how VCs might discuss taking the pressure off ECRs TODAY, so not necessarily a reflection on their own experiences but how they – as ppl who hold some sway – would alleviate the pressures that are on emerging scholars now. I think they did that rather poorly, and treated it to lip-service. I wouldn’t imagine they could be so lite-on about, say, gender diversity in their orgs. They would be expected to be aware of the issues and have institutional measures to address them. For ECRs not so much, it seems.

      2. I think whether the situation/system is inhumane can be relative to one’s current experience/view of the system and how it’s functioning. The fact that it can often treat highly skilled and excellent workers as disposable and offer ‘jobs’ that don’t allow people to make a living (e.g. zero hour contracts) points to a base level of exploitation that I think is inhumane. It is treating people as less than people. It allows the system and its supposed efficiencies to generate an entire academic underclass.

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      • Peter Bentley says:

        Hi Tseen,

        Yes mostly agreement. I think any discussion with VCs about gender diversity would be awkward given the lack of diversity in VCs 🙂

        It is a peculiar situation regarding who is responsible for the ECA careers. Senior leadership will place responsibility on faculties because it is their budget, and faculties will place responsibility on professors because they are often the one’s directly hiring for their projects. A fair bit of buck passing.

        The problem I have with the exploitation narrative is that people with PhDs working as casuals have lots of other options. There is also a misconception that most casual teaching staff have PhDs. Large-scale surveys show it is 17%. That is not to deny that casual employment, by its very nature, lend itself to unreasonable unpaid workloads and poor treatment. Casuals simply have no way to make use of the policies and protections because by doing so they risk dismissal. I also have a huge problem with hiring people on casual contracts when the work is actually quite predictable. It should at least be limited-term contract. But now I am digressing because the misuse of casual contacts is different to providing greater job security to postdocs and other contract staff.

        Overall, I think describing academic casuals or contract staff as exploited could cheapen the term by distracting us from the low skilled people or undervalued professions, who may even have regular employment but earn little and do not have back-up options to earn above median salaries.

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  2. Great piece, Tseen. Kudos for exemplary channelling of rage 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. gregor says:

    There is a lot right and so much wrong with this piece. First flaw is that most VCs have themselves been ECRs and or young academics depending on whether you view those groups as one and the same. To talk as if they are detached would be too simplistic. The second flaw is to blame universities for acting like businesses and then indicate that the staffing policies should somehow be more coherent or possibly even corporate. The piece and the VCs have failed to recognise that universities are organisms not organisations. They are the amalgamation of individual endeavour in complex ecosystems which by definition include a food chain. The vice chancellors have far less authority or power than the piece seems to assume. This is both their great strength and their great weakness. The issue of metricisation poses a major threat it also assumes an organisation as a corporate being. Does one cherish the individual endeavour or would one rather be an employee in a corporate structure confined and constrained. Before one has a debate about early career researchers one first has to have a debate about what universities should be.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      There is a lot right and so much wrong with your comment.

      But, seriously, a few points:

      1. Sure, the VCs were ECRs/young academics at some point. They are being interviewed about how they would relieve the pressure on ECRs TODAY – so that’s not them. Who they are is of course informed by their exps but their roles as VCs require them to bring more to the conversation than personal exps. And senior execs are often very detached from emerging scholar experiences, though some try hard to have insight and understanding on this front. They have an institutional POV that works on a level of KPIs and accountabilities. It is tricky to have a good understanding of wholistic researcher experiences in all of that.

      2. I did not blame universities for acting like businesses in this post. And since when are coherent staffing policies the domain of business/corporates? I think that’s a slightly outrageous assumption.

      3. Research communities and cultures are broad ‘ecosystems’, but universities are organisations. There are tensions inherent in both and frictions also. I have written about research cultures as ecosystems before: https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/research-culture/

      4. I think VCs exert a lot of power and often plead that they have none. They can definitely be forces of good for the university at all levels. If they choose to be so.

      And, finally, something we can agree on! Yes, I think there needs to be robust debate about what a university should be, and what it stands for. With a diversity of voices being heard and heeded.

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