ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE: WHY ACADEMIC CAREERS HAVE LOST THEIR APPEAL

The teachers and researchers of all Catalan universities have been called to strike on Tuesday 28 in protest against the appalling conditions under which the non-permanent staff work. The article by the branch of the workers’ union CGT which operates in my own university, UAB, explains that Royal Decree 103/2019, on the rights of trainee researchers (Estatuto del Personal Investigador en Formación, EPIF), is insufficient and, anyway, it is not being applied, which puts UAB on the side of illegality (https://cgtuab.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/28-de-maig-vaga-del-pdi-de-les-universitats-publiques-catalanes/ ). The call to strike refers both to part-time associates and to full-time doctoral and post-doctoral researchers who enjoy fellowships and grants, and, most importantly, to the lack of tenured positions they might occupy one day.

A friend told me recently that one of the main weaknesses of the academic sector is that we are not solidary with each other, which is why our protests always fail. This makes me feel quite bad about my decision not to join the strike, but, then, it is my habit to systematically reject all calls of that nature. I am a civil servant offering a public service and I don’t see why my students should be negatively affected by my refusal to work, no matter how justified the cause. Actually, I believe that strikes have lost their edge in the education sector, as there are so many every year that Governments (local, national) just do not pay any attention to the protesters. Other forms of activism are needed, and, so, this is what I am doing today: inform my students, and anyone interested, about what is going on.

I have described the situation many times in this blog, and what follows may sound repetitive, but this is one of the problems: nothing has changed since September 2010, when I started writing here, and certainly for some years before. To recap a very old story, until 2002, when I got tenure, you just needed to be a doctor in order to apply for a permanent position. Obtaining it depended, logically, on the quality of your CV and competition was anyway harsh, but on average you could get a permanent job around the age of 36 (it used to be 30, or slightly below, in the early 1990s). Next came the ‘habilitaciones’, an evil system which meant that candidates to positions had to demonstrate first their qualifications to a tribunal which could be sitting hundreds of miles away from home. This was expensive, tedious, anxiety-inducing for the members of the tribunals (who had to interrupt their lives often for months, regardless of their family situation) and evidently for the harassed candidates (who often had to try several times in different cities). Once you obtained your ‘habilitación’, you had to apply for tenure in a specific university and compete with other qualified candidates. ANECA, technically a private foundation attached to the Government, created in 2001, was given in 2007 the crucial function of organizing a new accreditation system to replace the nomadic ‘habilitaciones’, centralized in Madrid but mostly run online. Under this new system, imitated as we know by local agencies such as Catalan AQU, candidates must fill in a complex, time-consuming online application before being certified apt by the corresponding commission. Then you can apply to a university position. If you find any.

The perfect storm that risks demolishing the public Spanish university has been caused by the confluence of two incompatible circumstances: ANECA’s demands from candidates have been increasing–in principle to secure that better research is done and better teaching offered–whereas the 2008 economic crisis (about to be repeated) has destroyed all the junior full-time positions that trainee researchers used to occupy. Very optimistically, ANECA (and the other agencies) suppose that applicants have produced their PhD dissertations while being the recipients of a grant, and that they have next found post-doctoral grants, etc. In fact, most junior researchers are part-time associate teachers, which is incongruous because associates are, by definition, professionals who contribute their expertise to the universities for a few hours a week, and not academics aspiring to tenure. The Spanish public university suffers because of all this from a most dangerous split between the older, tenured teachers (average age 53, a third or more inactive in research) and the younger, non-permanent staff who should one day replace us, if they survive their frantic daily schedules. In fact, the 2008 crisis and the associate contracts have destroyed the chances of a whole generation (now in their forties and even fifties) to access tenured positions. And I am by no means as optimistic as ANECA, which appears to believe that all those currently beginning their PhDs will be eventually tenured.

We were told, around 2008, as a collective that Spain was not doing well in research and that we needed to raise the bar, hence the increasing demands of the accreditation system and of the assessment system (I refer here to the ‘sexenios’ that examine our academic production). The rationale behind this is that if we applied measuring systems borrowed from first-rank foreign academic environments this would increase our productivity and the quality of our research and teaching. Three problems, however, have emerged.

Here comes number one. Whereas in the past having a PhD was enough (being a ‘doctor’ means that you are ready to offer innovative teaching and research), now this is just the beginning of a long post-doctoral period that has delayed tenure to the age of 40, if you’re lucky, and with the addition of total geographical mobility within Spain. This means that private life is totally subordinated to the needs of academia, a situation which punishes women severely since the decade between 30 and 40 is when we have babies. Since, besides, men tend to leave women the moment they choose to move elsewhere for their careers, this means that few women scholars can succeed in the terms that are most highly praised, namely, by becoming an internationally known scholar. My personal impression is that the persons earning tenure at 40, or later, in the current system could have also earned it at 30 under the older system. And, obviously, we run a major risk: faced with this perspective of a long professional post-MA training, of 17 years…, most budding scholars will simply give up. Specially the young women, right now the majority in the Humanities.

Problem number two: without young full-time staff we, seniors, are collapsing, too. Here’s how I feel this week: seriously depressed. Why? Well, because after almost 28 years as a teacher/researcher I have a very clear perception that I will leave nothing behind. Since we have no full-time colleagues to train, and replace us, but a succession of part-time associates, when we retire our research area will retire with us. Overall, I feel, besides, very much isolated. I work mostly alone, either at home or in my university office, and I never meet my colleagues for a distended chat. Formal meetings are increasingly hard to organize because they conflict with the overworked associates’ hectic schedules. Informal meetings do not happen because we are too busy working for the glory of our CVs and we have no time to spare. And, anyway, when we speak our topic is invariably the pathetic state of the university. I just wonder where intellectual life is happening, if it is happening anywhere. I feel, besides, frustrated that all new projects to do something exciting never get started or are always provisional. Our book club is run by an associate who might be gone any day. When an enthusiastic associate and I visited the head of audio-visual services at UAB last week, to ask for advice about the project of opening a YouTube channel for the Department, the first question he asked was whether it would have permanent staff in charge. Too often, he said, new projects are started by keen associates only to be abandoned as soon as their contracts expire. My colleague replied that hers would last at least for… four years.

The third problem is that we are following foreign models of research and teaching assessment already imploding elsewhere. You may read, for instance, Anna Fazackerley’s article of 21 May, “‘It’s cut-throat’: half of UK academics stressed and 40% thinking of leaving” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/21/cut-throat-half-academics-stressed-thinking-leaving?CMP=share_btn_tw). In the British system there is technically no tenure: teachers do not become civil servants but are hired for life (like in the Generalitat-run Catalan system). This is why so many are thinking of quitting. In our case, we, tenured teachers, develop a sort of bad marriage relationship with our jobs: I realized recently that I am constantly protecting myself from my academic career, as if it were an abusive partner. In Britain there is an additional misery to deal with: academics are made responsible for the recruiting of the many students to guarantee the financial stability of their institutions. Aware that they are coveted clients, students have learned to disrespect their teachers even more than we are disrespected here (as supposedly lazy, privileged ‘funcionarios’… which some are indeed).

Fazackerley’s piece is actually based on a report about the wellbeing of British academics (https://www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk/resources/research-reports/staff-wellbeing-higher-education ), which, as you may imagine, leads to worrying conclusions. Reading it, I even wondered whether we have a right to our wellbeing as tenured teachers, in view of the ill-treatment that associate teachers and post-docs are victims of. Of course, this is one of the most devious tools of the system: making you feel bad about tenure you have earned with great effort. Anyway, the report notes that “Wellbeing is maximised when people feel valued, well-managed, have good workplace collegiality and can act with agency and autonomy”. However, our wellbeing is being eroded by, they say, “management approaches that prioritised accountability measures and executive tasks over teaching, learning and research tasks”, though in the case of Spain I should say this is different. Here there is, simply, an obsession for publishing based on scientific principles that just fails to understand what we do in the Humanities (and I mean ‘should do’, namely, think slowly). The British report concludes that “In general, respondents did not feel empowered to make a difference to the way that Higher Education institutions deal with wellbeing issues and this generated some cynicism”. That’s right: one day you feel depressed, the next one cynical, and so on. Even angry which, unfortunately, may affect classroom mood and lead to burnout.

I have already mentioned the sense of isolation (what the report calls ‘lack of collegiality’). The Guardian article highlights, as well, the stress caused by the frequent rejection of work for publication (which begins now at PhD level), the pressure caused by deadlines, the impossibility of excelling at the three branches of our jobs (teaching, research, admin tasks), and two more factors I’d like to consider a bit more deeply. One is that the rules change all the time and the top bar keeps moving. The other is how you are judged by what you have not done, despite having done a lot.

We are being told by the agencies which judge us that our planning should be improved, that it to say, that we should focus on publishing in A-list journals and not waste time in other academic activities. I acknowledge that I don’t know how to do that: I get many rejections from the top journals, I am invited to contribute to books that I love but that are worth nothing for the agencies, and so on. And the other way around: projects I have committed to, thinking they would bring nothing worth adding to my CV, have led to the best work I have done so far. Anyway, since the rules about what is a merit and what a demerit are changing all the time, you cannot really plan your career. You may choose, for instance, to be Head of Department for four years, and diminish the pace of your research at risk of failing your ‘sexenio’ assessment, only to find later on that admin work does not really count towards qualifying as full professor. I constantly suffer, in addition, from impostor’s syndrome because I have chosen to be very productive in some lines of my work but not invest time in others that the official agencies prefer. I certainly feel that my rather long, full CV is simply not good enough even though I have done my best. And intend to go on doing so until I retire.

Will this situation implode? I think it might, and soon enough. So far, we have been relying on a constant supply of young, eager volunteers to accept whatever poor conditions the university offers, for the sake of the glamour attached to presenting yourself as a higher education employee. If, however, that glamour, which was never real, goes on being eroded, young people will find something else to do. At this point, I do not recommend to anyone that they begin an academic career. If you’re talented enough, train yourself up to PhD level, and then find alternatives to disseminate knowledge through self-employment (I would say online audio-visual work).

In view of the situation in Britain, we might conclude that the situation is about to reach a tipping point all over the Western world, for something needs to give in. Naturally, the solution for Spain is more money, a return to full-time contracts at non-tenured level, simplifying the process of accreditation, and offering more tenured positions around age 35 at the latest. Unless there is, as many suspect, a plan afoot to destroy the public university and, with it, the social mobility it has afforded to some working-class individuals (not that many). What is going on cannot be, however, that clever and it is possibly just the product of political short-sightedness, compounded with–yes, my friend–our inability to present a common front before society as a collective, and defend our lives from this constant stress.

And on this bitter note, here finishes my contribution to the strike.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/