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/

ALL THAT RESENTMENT: UNIVERSITY TEACHERS AND SPANISH SOCIETY

My post today refers mainly to the article in El País, “La Universidad afronta la salida del 50% de sus catedráticos en siete años” (https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/01/09/actualidad/1547044018_002135.html). As it is habitual in the Spanish media, El País mistakes ‘catedráticos’ (i.e. full professors) for tenured teachers (i.e. those with positions as civil servants until they retire, but not necessarily ‘catedráticos’). The point raised is the same, though. By 2026, 16200 of the current full-time university teachers will have retired (almost 17%) but, here’s the nub: the current hiring system will not allow to fill in the vacant positions. The Spanish university will dramatically shrink though, in view of the constant demand, it might have to offer in a rush a high amount of tenured positions. Most likely, as we fear, 2026 will be the date when many Departments might disappear.

Allow me to comment on some on some points raised by the article, and then on some comments by the always angry readers of El País.

Point 1: the average age for teachers in the Spanish public university is 54. This refers only to full-time tenured teachers for, as we know, the average age for part-time associates is much lower (but also rising towards 40 since no tenured positions are being offered). I am myself 52 and was hired full-time aged 25 (yes, 27 years ago), so I am of the privileged best-paid, best-positioned teachers that aspire to retiring before 2026 (I certainly don’t want to be teaching 20-year-olds when I am past 65). Whenever I read this kind of news, I feel guilty that I am so lucky and profoundly annoyed that my professional group is presented as unusually, or even unfairly, privileged. This is the trick that the Spanish Government (and many others around the world) have been using to antagonise the different generations: the problem is not that the young are being grossly abused (they are!!) but that we, the ageing parasites, cling to our privilege.

Point 2: Pedro Sánchez’s current Socialist Government does not want to offer “an avalanche of tenured positions” that might bar access to the following generations, as happened in the Orwellian 1984. What happened then? Well, 5000 teachers with five years of experience and a doctoral degree were offered tenure in quite accessible state examinations. This, it is said, was a serious error as a blockage was formed that prevented the next generation from accessing tenure. The information, however, is not correct. In 1984, the year when I myself became an undergrad, there was a massive influx of students with working-class backgrounds (me again) thanks to Felipe González’s Socialist policies. This influx made it necessary to improvise the hiring of the new teachers; at the time, nobody thought of an alternative to the tenure system because this is how the university traditionally worked.

By 1991, when I was first hired as a teacher, the system still ran quite smoothly: you were employed full-time, with the expectation that you would write your doctoral dissertation in three years, and next face the corresponding state examination one or two years later. I should have been tenured, then, by 1997 or 1998, at the latest. What interrupted the quite acceptable ratio of generational replacement was not the bottleneck allegedly formed in 1984 but the new restrictive policies by the conservative Government headed by José María Aznar, which started to brutally attack the public university by destroying its hiring system. Thus, to use my own example, I did between 1996 and 2002, when I finally got tenure, the same amount of work as a tenured teacher but on the basis of temporary, poorly-paid contracts, while I waited. In 2008 the full-time contracts to hire junior researchers, as I was in 1991, were withdrawn. Then started the agony of the system and of the individuals who, like me, only aspire to doing their best for the Spanish university. Incidentally: replacing 17% of all employed teachers in seven years is a very acceptable ratio below 3% each year. This should liberate money that would suffice to pay for new tenured positions, which would be anyway cheaper as teachers would not be receiving money for any extra merits as after a long career. As things are now, though, this is considered too much and here lies the main problem.

Point 3: the function of ANECA and the accreditation system. Since the university system no longer could absorb the junior researchers, for lack of tenured positions, the Government raised the amount of qualifications needed to apply for one about ten years ago. The agency founded to grant national accreditations, ANECA (and other regional equivalents) guarantees the possession of those qualifications but has also created a fantastic amount of frustration. El País reports that ANECA has certified that 15000 Spanish doctors qualify for tenured positions (both ‘titular’ and ‘catedrático’) but this is far more than it is offered. Once you’re ANECA-approved, the waiting can take many years, during which, if you’re an associate, you might easily be dismissed by your university. I see that many of my colleagues have started signing as ‘catedrático acreditado’ or ‘titular acreditado’, which, in my modest view, is very sad.

By the way: I totally disagree with the opinion that, when we retire, there will be no sufficiently qualified personnel. It might well be that the Spanish university goes up a few notches in the international rankings, since the patient ‘anecandos’ know very well how to be competitive. What I see is that the 70-year-olds will be replaced, at the rate we’re going, by 50-year-olds with waning energies, past their prime in some specialities which require the stamina of the 25-35 young. After a time of restrictions, in which only 10% of the positions occupied by tenured teachers could be offered again, the Government has finally allowed universities to replace all their teachers. Yet, without better funding, this cannot be done. What I say: many brilliant researchers now in their 40s will still have to wait long years for tenure. Only 2.3% of all current ‘titulares’ like myself (i.e. senior lecturers) are younger than 40. Of course, many researchers in the 40-50 bracket are hired rather than tenured, but, even so, the case is that students aged 18-22 are being taught by their grandparents’ generation!

Now, three comments from readers (there are 270).

Comment 1: some countries, a reader says, would take the chance as a “golden opportunity” to replace the “endogamic, stagnant” Spanish teaching body. Thank you very much on behalf of the generation currently doing our best to educate students who are amazingly reluctant to being educated and to do, besides, research at levels never known in Spain before the 21st century. It is extremely satisfactory to receive so much support from the society that we serve and to be told, besides, that anyone younger would be better prepared. By the way, dear reader: the article does not refer to the massive dismissal of currently employed teachers but to our retirement. We do expect to be replaced by much better personnel, of course, but the point the article is making is not that we should retire but that the younger generation should be employed in adequate conditions. Not the same.

Comment 2: who cares, a reader writes, if the public Spanish university disappears? There are not sufficient students, anyway, to maintain a “bunch of lazy, overpaid guys, while the mass of workers lives in miserable conditions”. Thank you again, on behalf of my colleagues and myself. The whole point of the 1984 university revolution was to guarantee the higher education of the working classes so that they could be critical with their life conditions, including employment, and socially mobile upwardly. The 2008 crisis was used to destroy the university hiring system following the same abusive economic policies that have reduced the life of those born after 1985 to a constant struggle to survive. I am well aware that I am a luxury but what we should be demanding is not an end to the Spanish public university but an end to all the ultra-capitalist policies that are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. You might say that a university education does not guarantee any upward social mobility (the upper classes have done all they can to hinder it) but imagine for one moment a Spain with only ultra-expensive private universities and a paltry scholarship system, possibly much worse than what we have now. How’s that an improvement on the lot of the working classes? The upper and the middle classes can choose between the public and the private university, either in Spain or abroad. But, how do you allow the talent of working-class individuals to flourish? Aren’t you interested?

Comment 3: (with this one I must agree). “Spanish society does not value research”, nor any merits attached to it. This is possibly the key to the whole matter: the comments elicited by this article show a colossal miscommunication between those of us who take university research and teaching seriously and those who, unaware of what we actually do (or in some cases rejected by the system), show enormous hostility at what they assume to be our privileged positions. Reading the comments you can see how the colleagues that try to explain our job face an adamant dislike, even hatred, based on immovable premises: we get tenure aided by a close circle of accomplices though we lack sufficient merits, and the little we do does by no means justify the enormous salaries we are paid. Of course, to someone paid 800 or 1000 euros a month, a salary of between 2500 and 4500 (these figures are public) might seem stratospheric. Also, the very idea of tenure. It is funny to see, though, that nobody disputes what football players, top models, influencers of all kinds and the CEOs that kills thousands of jobs at the drop of their hat are paid. Supposing, then, that in the next seven years a new generation is given tenure, this is what they’ll find: generalised resentment. Just what one needs to offer good teaching and progressive research.

We’re trapped, then, in a vicious circle: any defence of the Spanish university as a necessary public service and of their under-50 workers as unfairly exploited sounds to lay ears as a defence of privilege. I do acknowledged that some of my colleagues shamelessly abuse their positions but a) they are the minority and will be out by 2026, b) the same can be said about many other workers–we’re not saints, and nor is anyone else. The resentment poured on us is a product of envy, the ‘national sin’ as many call it, but also of the low educational levels in Spain. Germans, Britons or Americans do not seem to hate their university teachers, though they’re possibly only socially respected in places like Japan (my guess). Long gone are the times when being a ‘catedrático’ or a simple senior lecturer elicited respect and I keep no illusions about that. But why we are so misunderstood baffles me. Also, why instead of urging the Government to solve a situation that can be indeed solved with a minimum good will the solution offered is getting rid of absolutely the only institution that can bring some social change to our chronically backward nation. Unamuno’s ugly “¡Qué inventen ellos!” still has us in thrall.

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/