Nick Kirsop-Taylor and Lawerance McKay

 

The global coronavirus pandemic is significantly disrupting academic life. The shift to online teaching, separation from departments and teams, and disruption to research projects are already causing major problems for many academics. For those at the bottom of the ladder, the emerging picture appears far worse.

Contracts are not being renewed, departments are cutting back and not placing adverts, and the job market has seized up, with some ECRs facing the crushing experience of being shortlisted, preparing for interviews and then being told the post was withdrawn. Meanwhile, there is a risk that the sector’s preferred solution to the crisis, which involves the possibility of a generalised recruitment freeze, does not work in the interests of ECRs.

In this blog we discuss how the present situation is impacting on ECRs, how this might play out in the near future, and why ECRs’ interests must be heard in the bailout negotiations – to the benefit of the HE sector, as well as the ECR community. 

For all the challenges that have faced politics ECRs in UK HE, including creeping precarityincreasing workloads, and publication pressures, there has been an underlying recognition that ECRs were worth investing in, both because of their value to the sector and beyond. This generally translated into institutional support, and ECR satisfaction, in terms of career development training, good supervision, and access to research funding opportunities.

Though not naïve about the challenges, most could emerge from their doctoral or post-doctoral studies believing themselves credible candidates who, given enough effort and a little luck, would land on their feet. While competition for academic jobs was tough, and already becoming more challenging in recent years, roughly half of humanities and social science graduates would go on to find academic employment.

The current coronavirus outbreak is changing this situation for ECRs. The length of lockdown is unclear, but universities elsewhere are at the back of the queue for reopening, and normality is perhaps as long as 18 months away. Added to travel restrictions, imposed indefinitely, both universities and their clients are taking actions that hit the HE sector in the pocket.

The most immediate losses come from closures of accommodation and estates and cancellation of events. But there is now the likely risk that international students will not take up undergraduate and postgraduate places, with UUK suggesting a £7bn blackhole in funding from international learners in the coming year. With their higher international fees, these have been the financial backbone of many institutions, putting a serious dent in their economic planning. Delays to the academic year are possible – perhaps to begin in January 2021 - but even in this case, universities’ ability to attract students could be undercut if lockdown continues or resumes.

In anticipation, some institutions are acting unilaterally to stave off losses. Oxford – not known for being cash-strapped – has already announced an extensive hiring freeze.

As a consequence, Universities UK (UUK) have now entered negotiations with the UK Government about a possible sector bailout, reportedly worth £2bn. UUK has argued that, unchecked, coronavirus could seriously damage the sector - especially institutions with poor savings and limited borrowing capacity - and, hence, research and development capacities that are key to the UK’s global competitiveness. As part of this negotiation, UUK have offered reform and to ‘play their part’ through cost reduction strategies, including a potential recruitment freeze.

We welcome any proposal that puts the sector back on a firmer footing, and it is arguably fair and proportionate that the burden does not entirely fall on government. However, there is a clear potential here that this solution, rather than alleviating the perilous situation of ECRs, simply institutionalises it: a planned and controlled freeze is little better for us than the ad-hoc one we see today.

Nonetheless, the devil is in the detail. Both the length and breadth of the freeze are important, and playing on the mind of ECRs. Evidently, a longer freeze will eat away at the savings of unemployed or under-employed ECRs, and lead to greater suppressed demand when hiring restarts; Oxford’s decision to impose a twelve-month freeze suggests that universities may hunker down for the long-haul.

Meanwhile, any freeze seems likely to be extensive but not blanket. As Oxford’s approach suggests, hiring is likelier to come through replacing rather than adding staff; externally-funded research posts will be safer than others; and casual recruitment, especially of teachers, may be maintained to plug holes. Though these may be sources of hope for ECRs, the overall situation will be scarcity and even the ‘lucky’ ones who scrape by on part-time contracts have no guarantee of lasting out the pandemic.

Given these concerns about a freeze, and its possible length and breadth, we see many of our members openly voicing fears on social media about whether they can stick it out as an ECR – or, even if they can hang on, whether it will be worth it. As we have written, these anxieties are even more acute among ECRs of international backgrounds, who are facing existential questions about whether they should forge a future in the UK.

Yet it is not just ECRs who stand to lose out. The UK’s world-leading research relies heavily upon research assistants and associates for their delivery, while shortfalls of teaching staff would mean additional teaching and marking loads falling onto already over-burdened senior colleagues and module convenors.

Right now, it might be difficult to think long-term when immediate survival is the priority. Yet, a failure to take account of the enduring value and contribution of ECRs to the HE sector in the present negotiations would be a historic mistake.

 

Author biographies

Nick Kirsop-Taylor is a Lecturer at the University of Exeter and a PSA member. Lawerance McKay is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester. Image credit: Pixabay.