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Sunshine through the COVID-19 cloud: What next for early career researchers?
The Political Studies Association’s (PSA) Early Career Network (ECN) have been trying to stay in front of national discussions about the future of early career academic careers throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, shining light on both current, concrete impacts and the likely challenges that are coming. Many of our members are currently experiencing painful transitions and changes as part of recruitment freezes, termination of temporary contracts, cuts to research funding streams, and anxieties over their future career trajectories.
Many may even be re-evaluating their futures in a sector as unstable as higher education. Beyond our own lives, this has troubling implications for the learning outcomes of the undergraduates we teach, and departments who lean heavily (and often silently) on our underpaid and undervalued additional work. Even so, we have to assume that the current disruptions caused by Covid-19 will, at some unknown point, relax. This blog casts an eye at what a post-Covid-19 sector might hold in store for ECRs. We are aware that not everyone will want to take this journey with us, as the current predicament is still too painful and uncertain, but please bear with us as we set out some ideas of how the future might look.
Hybrid teaching and learning
It is looking increasingly likely that hybrid teaching and learning (T&L) in HE will be the new normal in the post-Covid-19 world. This model will likely offer blended mixes of digital and face to face delivery of taught components and assessments. The requirement for educators to be physically present on a campus space for T&L delivery and the administrative functions associated with lecturing (office hours, team meetings etc) will be minimized. This could potentially offer new opportunities for ECRs to take on temporary and shorter-term T&L roles that are geographically more distant from their homes. For example, Durham has recently begun recruiting Digital Learning Designers and Learning Technology Advisors and Edinburgh are recruiting for a Learning Technology Support Officer. In short, it could potentially offer a greater spread of opportunities for ECRs seeking temporary T&L opportunities during their transition to full lectureships.
Digital ECR events
As we have noted elsewhere, attending conferences has often been challenging for ECRs: issues of distance, funding and timing can often deter people. Indeed, attending a conference can cost up to a month’s post-doc salary. Although digital conferences might struggle to offer the same opportunities for networking and relationship building, they help to equalise access, widening opportunities to share research. As an example of this, the ECN have transformed our 2020 annual meeting into a digital conference.
Although this was originally as a response to Covid-19, we have since come around to seeing it as pointing to a better way of conducting ECR conferences. Should this model spread more widely, the time avoided on travel, disruption to personal lives, and (hopefully) lower costs will be beneficial to ECRs. Without having to prioritise funding to attend one big conference, ECRs might be able to share work with many different audiences – especially if ‘mega-conferences’ transform into more targeted events run by specialist groups, as we are already seeing.
Recognition of ECR contribution
For decades, the UK model of HE has systematically undervalued and glossed over the contributions of ECRs to T&L and departmental administration. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that many ECRs have become seen as a renewable and expendable resource, and ECRs have tolerated a lack of security and certainty in the hope of progressing in an increasingly competitive academic job market. HE institutions have benefitted by employing workers who are less likely or, for those employed by third parties, unable to complain about workloads and work patterns. As shown by our recent survey, many heads of departments are mindful of championing and insulating precarious ECRs where possible. Unsurprisingly, however, institutional responses to Covid-19 at a higher level are leading directly to greater insecurity for ECRs. This might, as noted by PSA trustees recently, lead to a ‘lost generation’ of ECRs and a tarnishing of the reputation of UK HE that would take years to overcome.
The Covid-19-induced reduction of ECRs in the HE workforce will push the ECR workload on to already overworked lecturers and senior lecturers who themselves are facing the arduous task of transitioning to online and blended teaching and learning. This work includes seminar delivery, marking and lower responsibility administrative tasks. While this transfer of work may be undertaken as a one-off emergency, in the medium-term departments are increasingly going to feel the loss of ECRs.
Any reduction of the flow of ECRs that stretches into the long-term will be damaging to UK HE. Indeed, with a recession looming, this might yet drive young people towards HE rather than a depleted labour market – suggesting that universities may underestimate demand in the coming year, and regret losses of staff. This is likely to make the critical role that ECRs play in the daily running of politics departments much more difficult to ignore. In turn, this exposure and visibility might lead to better outcomes and a better settlement for ECRs in a way that was inconceivable under the old system.
In summary, whilst the present situation for many ECRs in political science feels very bleak we also recognise that there are some positives that may emerge from current changes. The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to make us more visible and recognized, increase our opportunities for taking more geographically distant positions, and allow us to better disseminate our research and raise our profiles.