Dr Nick Kirsop-Taylor, Dr Heather Alberro, Lawrence McKay & Dr Liam McLoughlin - Early Career Network Committee 20 February 2020

Building a career in academic political science as an early career researcher (ECR) can be very difficult due to the precarity of post-doctoral roles, the long publication time frames, and inherent institutional biases amongst others. In response to this Universities argue that the current precarity is merely a response to competitive market forces and government macro policy in Higher Education, and that they have little ability to improve the lot of ECRs. Students of Higher Education policy and practice point to the United States where this form of precarity at post-doctoral level has been the norm for decades. Naturally, ECR’s believe that more could be done to reduce precarity and improve avenues for strategic career building in academia. For this reason, the current strike action being undertaken by the
University and College Union has been launched with the noble aim of trying to address ECR precarity in addition to longer-standing issues of workload and pension reform.

The inclusion of ECR precarity as a strike issue is a culmination of years of hard work and advocacy by many ECRs trying to raise the profile of precarity and its poisonous long-term consequences on the academy and the lives of junior academics. During the strike action we noted how social media broadly confirmed that the majority of ECRs were happy that precarity was being raised as a strike issue.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for the #UCUstrike picket & donated to @ucu fighting fund (http://www.ucu.org.uk/fightingfund ) in solidarity. My uni didn't qualify for the strike, but as an early career researcher, I see no future in academic without the sector-wide changes we seek.
Tweet, Nov 2019

Many other ECRs were grateful for the solidarity shown by more senior and positioned academics in striking on this issue and on their behalf. Interestingly however, this strike issue has also precipitated some problematic issues and challenges for ECRs. These were the subject of a lot of debate and discourse on social media, and in this blog we discuss two of the problematic issues that affected politics ECRs during this round of strike action.

Firstly, whilst many were able to show their solidarity through digital striking and the withdrawal of educational services, others were daunted and put off the action of being seen to strike – a conundrum as old as industrial relations. Some ECRs expressed a sense of risk that they might in turn be seen as a trouble-maker, and that this might detriment future opportunities for advancement or re-hiring. As many expressed, this is a problematic and cyclical argument. Whilst nearly all expressed unhappiness at the current situation, others didn’t want to jeopardize this situation (problematic though it may be)- or their future prospects- by being viewed as troublemakers:

Secondly, other ECRs expressed how they physically were not making enough money already to lose any further pay. ECR’s of modest socioeconomic backgrounds and on precarious contracts might wish to demonstrate solidarity with their comparably more secure colleagues by joining the strike yet might literally (as is often the case) be unable to afford doing so. Whilst the University and College Union might make up for some of this disruption to pay, the risk of receiving less pay than normal could be disruptive to ECR’s whose lives and financial situations were already precarious. Furthermore, without good reason, several universities have chosen to deduct from monthly pay-packets in one go, rather than spreading the burden over time. This approach hurts ECRs especially, who can rarely call on savings to ride out pay shortfalls.

As an early career researcher I cannot afford to #strike but I can support those on the picket lines for #ucustrikes against the #uuk pension reforms. So today I brought biscuits to the men and women picketing on the rain. so the same and #bringabiscuit [sic]
ECR, March 2018

The strike has provided a picture of contemporary HE in microcosm: a world in which the marketisation trend is good for no-one but worse for ECRs. But this same state of affairs means that ECRs will struggle to bear the burden of change – however much we believe it is needed.  Our next steps should proceed from that place of understanding. This is a message ECRs need to hear, as much as our higher-ups. Getting active is great, but there’s no value to denouncing those who seem less demonstrative. Furthermore, while we love to see senior colleagues fighting the corner of ECRs, we hope that this can be extended to domains where ECRs cannot personally have any effect. A good example is external examining, where 29 professors recently refused contracts in protest at pay and conditions. Finally, if there is to be conflict in HE, universities must realise that their duty of care remains, and there can be no excuses for needlessly making a painful process even more so. 

We are looking forward to continuing discussions about politics ECR precarity and the latest round of University and Colleges Union strikes at our events over the coming year. In particular, we are holding an ECRs and Industrial Strike Action Roundtable at PSA Annual Conference in April. If you’re an ECR in politics, the ECN’s job is to represent you, and we can always do better – tell us how!