It’s an issue that resonates with me, having left academia about 18 months ago. I’m still resolving how I feel about the situation – I didn’t leave as a principled stand on the exploitation of early career academics, I mostly just wanted to get my hands dirty as a practitioner – but Mel’s points about the treatment of ECRs rings true. One point that I want to address though
The contradiction at the heart of today’s universities is the expectation that employees will uphold the ideals of scholarship in tandem with commercial values, and that they will do this in every area of their working life except pay. Is it any wonder that our peers are leaving for other professions?
For starters, I think this misses that it’s not a dichotomy of academia – other careers, and it’s not a dichotomy of poor pay – better pay. I feel that my academic work feeds my media practice, and vice versa. I feel my studies have contributed to my political policy work, and my policy work feeds back into my academic work. I anticipate returning the academy some day, and I still do academic research now. I have always considered my self a researcher-practitioner. I have worn many hats, and worked for many organisations, but I don’t feel that I’ve ever left the profession. On a personal level, I feel attachment to many different areas of work. I want researchers to come and infect other professions with their approach. They don’t have to make a career out of it, but a bit of cross-fertilisation is good for everyone.
Valuable academic work can come from outside the academy, and can come from within the corporate world. While universities may trade on the fantasy (and it has always been a fantasy) of the purity of the academy, career academics can reinscribe this fantasy by not acknowledging the validity of academic endeavour in other industries. I find it amusing when academics who decry researchers who work within the corporate world as inevitably tainted by the structural pressures of business then defend hoary old cultural studies tropes with reference to disproven psychological models, ascientific garbage, misunderstood statistics and even horoscopes. Good research comes from many different areas, as does poor, compromised and tainted research.
Similarly, the point about pay is a little problematic. I get paid less now than I would as an ECR – probably not quite as low as a sessional academic – but I feel that my work with EngageMedia is more valuable to me. A lower pay-packet is the trade-off I accept to work on a project I genuinely love. While the well-worn trope of universities as removed from the ‘real world’ is inaccurate in many respects, it rings true for me. I like research-oriented and reflexive practice in my work, I find straight research a bit suffocating. (I should also point out that QUT – where I have done the bulk of my research – is actually marvellous in this regard. The YouDecide2007 project was a great example of the kind of work I like to do.)
I could be doing academic work and earn more – hell, I could do corporate work or political policy work and earn a bucket more – but I value my independence and autonomy more than a bigger pay packet.
Certainly, ECRs should get paid commensurate with the work they do. However, there’s a bit of a tension here. Should universities step back from commercial values, and accept that ECRs won’t get what they can command in the marketplace? If we demand higher salaries to prevent researchers leaving for the corporate world, does that mean we should expect the ROI expectations and overwork that corporate work entails? Mel notes that 100% of the workers at Sydney Uni work on weekends, but this is a problem everywhere, and corporate level remuneration is unlikely to reduce that level of overwork.
Should universities move towards paying ECRs higher, headhunting and using a corporate approach? As Alex Burns notes in the comments, universities are already headed down this path:
Many positions are not openly advertised – rather, Faculties may attend conferences or look to ‘strategic hires’ to build up their reputation in specific fields. You can see this on university HR sites, in the change plans for Faculties and Schools, and in head-hunters who attend conferences to find out who is the emerging talent.
Certainly, there should be reforms around workload, the misuse and underpayment of sessional academics, and increased public funding of research. But ECRs should also broaden their horizons a little. Ultimately, academia, like any job, involves a level of self-promotion, jostling for position, strategic career moves and career changes. We should fight for fair pay, but if I have to choose between a move towards headhunting, cross-career fertilisation and the associated politicking that may come with it, and a return to a self-mythologising ‘pure’ academy, I’d have to go with the former.
You can be a researcher, an informed practitioner, a contributor to public discourse in many fields, and retain as strong a dedication to research values as any university-based researcher.