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Is the academic job market ‘building back better’?
Since early in the pandemic, we at the ECN have been collecting data to track its impact on recruitment to academic jobs in the discipline of politics (see here and here). In this latest release, we uncover how the winter’s peaks and troughs in the UK’s fight against Covid-19 has impacted the academic job market. In addition we review the impact of the pandemic at the one year mark, and how ECRs are likely to experience any job market ‘recovery’.
In the time since our last release, the UK has seen a winter wave of Covid-19 with a worse weekly death toll than even the first wave. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a successful vaccine rollout. In many sectors of the economy, there will be a direct feed-through between the severity of the pandemic and employment prospects, but it is far from clear how this should work for universities.
From the perspective of academic institutions, recovery looks like a long, slow, road at best in the wake of Covid-related losses. At worst, the growing momentum for fee rebates and rent refunds might send the sector further into the red. In this light it is uncertain whether universities will relax hiring freeze policies which in some cases are set to outlast the current lockdown. However, universities can now anticipate full re-opening to welcome new students in 2021-22, and the clear financial uplift this brings may allow departments to now turn on the recruiting taps.
As in our previous pieces, we take stock of the impact using data scraped from jobs.ac.uk, the most popular recruitment site in UK academia. Although jobs.ac.uk do not share their data, we can track trends in the number of job advertisements on given days in the past through use of internet archiving. As there are several limitations* to this approach, these headline figures should be understood as a snapshot of all the opportunities our members could feasibly access (although very few will be attractive or available for any one individual).
For the last three months, by investing in a web archiving service, have been collecting data on a daily basis and are for the first time able to remove Masters and PhD placements from our headline figures so that all that remains are genuine job advertisements. The first graph shows the trend for just this period. There is no clear upwards trend in job postings over the entire period, but there is an encouraging bump for December – a clear rush to fill positions for an incoming academic term.
However, this narrow picture may obscure the level of recovery we are currently experiencing in the job market after a year of living with Covid-19. We have collected data over the entire period of the pandemic and across a comparable period in the prior calendar years – as shown in this second graph. The radical impact of the pandemic is plain to see – with a more than 60% drop-off in hiring between March and May which does not at all fit the usual seasonal pattern. From that point, hiring during Covid was closer but still behind the pre-crisis trend, but in December a surge of hiring finally brought hiring above its level in March 2020 and virtually caught up to its pre-crisis level. Despite caveats around this data, it presents a more positive picture than anything we have previously seen throughout this crisis.
Nonetheless, this is not a ‘return to normal’.
The under-supply of jobs over the entirety of 2020 will have inevitably resulted in significant pent-up demand – especially for entry-level positions, where a steady stream of new PhDs creates a wide pool of competitive applicants. Short of a hiring surge in 2021, the structural difficulties faced by ECRs in finding fulfilling academic roles will have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Furthermore, it is likely that many ECRs will find themselves less competitive than they might have hoped at the point of entering the job market. PhDs who had to cancel fieldwork because of the pandemic – and who were nonetheless incentivised to finish their PhDs by funders – may find it more challenging to demonstrate research skills to potential employers. ECRs who are parents or carers may have found it difficult to find the time to build their research profile, with a particular impact on women, who may have been publishing less owing to gendered differences in childcare and household duties.
There is surely a case that, in turning the hiring taps back on, universities must show some sensitivity to these challenges, both as a matter of fairness between ECRs and more senior applicants and between ECRs themselves. This is partly a question of formal processes – such as how job advertisements are written, how person specifications are designed, and whether gaps in employment are taken as black marks against an applicant. It is also about the culture of hiring committees, which (faced with many applicants and little time) can too adopt the reductive practice of tallying publications and grants rather than assessing potential. Likewise, funders (who also have sway over employment prospects) could take account of the greater difficulty in winning grant income faced by ECRs – especially through providing more small grants with fewer burdens to developing proposals. Just as in wider society, academia can ‘build back better’ from this crisis – or risk entrenching its inequalities.
The ECN exists to represent postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and early career academics within the PSA. If any of the issues discussed in this piece resonate with you please reach out to us on social media (@psa_ecn) or by email (email@example.com).
The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Political Studies Association.
* The figures scraped from jobs.ac.uk include various types of academic employment: lectureships, postdocs, teaching contracts and so on. They include UK and non-UK roles, although a substantial majority are UK-based. HE institutions dominate, but commercial and public sector organisations also use the service, along with research institutes and FE colleges.