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Supporting our next generation of scholars
Few people will have enjoyed the last few weeks. But even in truly global crisis, the burdens are not shared equally. Deaths thus far from Covid-19 have generally been concentrated in particular places and often in poorer communities; and the greatest risks in fighting the pandemic have been by particular groups of, often poorly paid, workers and carers.
Even within the world of political studies, some are undoubtedly suffering more than others from the huge dislocations that have hit higher education. Many people will have struggled with sudden moves to online teaching – often expected to be delivered by institutions with little notice, few or no additional resources, and very limited or non-existent training. But some have been affected particularly harshly: often being expected by their employers to continue delivering a high-quality education while simultaneously having to deal with suddenly increased childcare and home schooling responsibilities, or facing other caring responsibilities.
As we move beyond the initial response to the crisis, more serious consideration has focussed on the longer-term implications. Teaching online appears likely to be the new normal for some time. The research of many scholars (particularly those with heavy domestic burdens, or those whose research requires travel) is going to be greatly inhibited – with, again, no clear idea of when such restrictions will ease. And all universities are likely to face a significant financial squeeze, with even the existence of some potentially threatened.
Hard times for high education potentially threaten the job security and working conditions of nearly all PSA members. But, once again, the pain is not likely to be shared equally. And while, as PSA Chair and Vice-Chair we are concerned about all our members, we are particularly worried right now about those in the most precarious and marginal positions, who as a group appear to face the greatest threats. Those threats are varied:
- Talented students wanting to study for PhDs face the possibility of funding suddenly becoming scarce;
- For those approaching the end of their PhDs, the post-doctoral positions or junior academic posts that provide them with their first step on the career ladder may also become much less common;
- Some of the increasing number of scholars employed on fixed-term contracts fear that their employers will find them the quickest and easiest way to cut costs; indeed, there is at least some evidence of this already happening;
- And even junior scholars in open-ended posts could be threatened with universities not honouring normal promotion procedures, or their research agendas being severely impeded just as they approach the end of their probation or tenure periods.
Overall, it is early career scholars who are among those most threatened by a ‘Corona-squeeze’ on higher education. In some of the more negative scenarios, we could even witness a ‘lost generation’ of political scientists, similar to that experienced during the 1980s (Grant 2010: 114). This would be extremely damaging: not only for the scholars themselves, but also for our discipline and for the various departments and Schools that most scholars. In any good academic department that either of us has ever worked in, a huge amount of the intellectual energy and ideas have come from junior scholars. Recent REF/RAE exercises have confirmed that much of the best work in political studies, and in other disciplines, comes from early career scholars. We don’t want, and can’t afford, to lose that.
So what can the PSA do in this situation? As Chair and Vice-Chair, we can’t provide a cure for Covid. Nor can we make job opportunities appear. And while we could proffer bland reassurances that all will be well, that would be neither honest nor helpful. But there are a few things that we can do.
A first is for the PSA to continue to champion the importance of political studies, and speak up publicly for our discipline. As Chair and Vice-Chair we are determined that the PSA continues to do this – on our own account and also, where possible, working together with colleagues from learned societies representing other academic disciplines.
Second, as an association we can and will continue to offer strong support for our Early Career Network (ECN). This group is perhaps more vibrant than it has ever been, representing the interests of more than 600 PSA members. The network is regularly producing blogs about issues of concern for early career scholars, and also now supplementing them with podcasts. Perhaps most importantly, ECN is active at the PSA’s annual conference every spring and has its own conference every summer. These events provide a vital opportunity for junior scholars not only to present their own research, but also to meet each other and exchange experiences, and to attend sessions that develop their professional knowledge and experience.
Sadly, as you will probably know, this year’s PSA conference in Edinburgh had to be cancelled – one of the many academic conferences to fall victim to Covid-19. But although the summer ECN conference will not now be able to happen in its normal format, it is going ahead as an online event. As an association, the PSA will be doing everything we can to support this event, as a vital service to our junior members. We can’t magically make all the problems facing higher education disappear. But we can, at least, help to make junior scholars in our discipline as well equipped as possible to navigate a difficult landscape.
Professor Roger Awan-Scully, is the Chair of the Political Studies Association. Professor Claire Dunlop is the Vice-Chair of the Political Studies Association. More information on joining the PSA and the Early Career Network can be found here. More information on the ECN virtual conference ‘Because the Internet…’ click here. Image credit: Shutterstock.