Monday, July 23, 2012

Sector is Just Broken: From Guardian's Friday the 13th

“Have you been following what happened at the University of Virginia?” That was a question appearing in a live chat sponsored a couple weeks ago by the Guardian’s higher education blog.

Also referenced, early on, was an old favorite from AAUP on the bleakness of things, in 2010, which had a subheading “the Collapsing Faculty Infrastructure.” 

Which, really, was the main subject of the Guardian's Friday the 13th conversation, entitled, “Freelance, part-time or fixed-term: is this the future of academic careers?

This produced comments so rich, and varied, that I have taken the liberty of excerpting a number of them, with enough editing to yield “one-liners.” I think I have not altered  anyone’s fundamental views.

Now, although they were obviously aware of grim parallels in the United States, the respondents seem to be mostly British, no surprise, an Australian or American here and there, and mostly lecturers—limited term and part/or part-time, “fractionals”—and graduate students. There were also some “staff” folk, and at least one senior tenured professor, and a gaggle of panelists who are listed here

The chat was kicked off by the news that a job advertisement, from the University of Birmingham,* had elicited applications for a "voluntary postdoctoral position.” Well, even in Britain they’re not going for an entirely voluntary higher education faculty yet, and so the comments more often involved “fractional” and other sorts of arrangements that are very familiar to American adjunct and contingent faculty.

Of course, anyone can see the original comments whenever they wish, but I read them all, in one bleak and unbroken binge, and I am trying to convey here what I heard as a sort of opera, with voices of despair, grief, cynicism, solidarity, resignation, sadness, amusement (not much), anger, and resolve.

Um, before we go on, have you seen New Faculty Majority's new website? That will help you get through this or, after you've read the whole thing, get over this. 

Ok, it was a downer, altogether. I didn’t, for instance, read anything that sounded like good fun. You know, a bunch of teenagers preparing to toss a burning motorcycle through a bank window, that sort of stuff. 

And I guess I was a bit surprised by the lack of revolutionary zeal.

Also, not much about fattening administrative salaries or pharaonic building projects.

And not much class-based chat either. Some, not much: Brits, we really do rely on you for this. What gives?

Well. Here it is-almost everything is in order of appearance, with a few switches, and a few parenthetical indications, for the sake of intelligibility. I didn’t sample every single comment, but most of them. Also, I’ve linked here and there to some sites that explain some special topics.  


Sad to hear that this is happening.

Sector is just broken.

Fractional contracts insufficient to live on.

Interactions lead to inequalities....nobody has managed to eliminate them.

Unless/until full time staff begin to value part timers and support them.

Existence of contingent faculty downgrades the value of every professor. 

In America, the pundits are continually asking why isn't college cheaper? 

Declare a fiscal emergency and tenure goes out the window.

Short-term, part-time contract was perfect. (Then) 

[But] Opportunities for permanence are not so forthcoming. (now).

Their career is something they're passionate about.

Supporting the status quo....actually part of the problem

Underpay and overwork new entrants to the profession.

Blight of casualisation.

Universities know they are losing out to entrepreneurs.

Universities tend to be appalling employers.

Mundane factors...eating and sleeping and having basic job security.

Support...that you hope to get from senior colleagues...patchy.

Closed off to workers on casualised contracts...getting a mortgage.

PGWA resists... increasing exploitation of PhD students.

Someone who completed her PhD...working as a “honorary” research fellow!

Concordat says "value and afford equal treatment...regardless of contract.

Boggles the mind what they think they can and.. actually get away with.

Has the concordat actually made any difference?

Tend to avoid these kind of discussions because they fill me with panic.

Very long way from being paid fairly for the work they do.

Wait until you have to compete against every Ph.D. all around the globe.

Women academics are also twice as likely to work part-time.

I have been advocating the 'branded academic' and portfolio professional.

The level of responsibility that senior academics do or don’t’ feel.

The HE equivalent of selling off the family assets in order to survive today.

It’s about intergenerational responsibility, innit?

Can't get a job in academia, need to look outside it(?) Seems a tad harsh. 

There's clearly something rotten in the industry that needs to be sorted.

I'm more keen on tackling these problems than just throwing my hands up.

How about having limits on the numbers of PhD students trained?

Wish I could be as optimistic about the future as you.

Administrators primarily have cutting labor costs in mind. 

Have you been following what happened at the University of Virginia? 

Replace professors with machines...few people left to fight for

In terms of solutions, unfortunately, there are no easy fixes

Personally happy to (at least have accepted that I'll) work part-time.

What disheartens me is that this is expected.

Burden this puts on people not as lucky as I am in having partner who earns.

In US and Australia university teaching is casualised to a staggering rate.

Fraction of the cost of meaningful salaries.

Absolutely no business incentive whatsoever to higher education institutions.

We all hate to think that this is what's happening.

Try to find constructive answers.

The problem now goes...beyond individual academic career disappointment.

Someone looks at the evidence and decides it is time to do something else?

Many were working below the UK minimum wage.

Knock on impacts are huge... impacts upon support staff.

Casualization....going hand in had with relentless drive of marketisation. 

There is a LOT rotten in the industry!

When I [Senior faculty] catch cold, contingent faculty catch pneumonia.

All facing the same epidemic...should work together in order to stamp it out.

Without support from senior academics

Grassroots' groups ....little power to make any significant changes.

Real need for criticism of the system by those...already tenured.

"Lecturer" is part research part teaching, I don't see it w/only one part.

Flexible workforce... balance of financial incentive and professional esteem.

Reward flexible workforce: trust in you as employer will reap rewards. 

They'll keep you innovative, lean, on the cutting edge.

The very knowledge creators that your business depends on.

I doubt I'll get an academic job or post doc funding.

Get a job, almost any job...see if I can do a bit of research on the side. 

I'm 30—I want a pension and to start a family.

Think they'll don't seem to let them know the odds. 

Support staff...far more job security than people doing teaching or research.

Hell, some panelists (for live chat) have these kinds of staff positions.

Have hopes...but you should not have expectations.

* Now have look at this, for, not University of Birmingham, but University of Alabama at Birmingham where, strangely, they offer not one, but two "volunteer postdoctoral positions." Of course, we are a much bigger country. And, sure, it's for orthodontics students, and those guys stand to make a little money down the road, but still, there it is. 

And, again, just pointing it out: New Faculty Majority's new website? That will help you deal with all of this.