‘When will the job market return to normal?’

What does this observation tell us about the state of our profession? By my calculation there have been more job advertisements in the past six months for vice-chancellors than for lecturers in Renaissance literature.

It certainly tells us something about the working conditions for vice-chancellors. If you follow the right people on twitter, you get a little ‘there goes another one’ alert every now and then. It’s quite something. But I’m more interested in what it might say about my own field, and in turn how that field might serve as an index for the job market in the humanities. Just about every university has an English department, and just about every English department teaches the Renaissance. There are a lot more of us than vice-chancellors.

In the United States statistics are published every year, in the wake of the regular autumn round of job ads. The figures are worrying: drops in English and History alike over the past two years, with a parallel drop in tenure-track positions. The big trend there is towards casualization: gaps in teaching being filled by people hired by the course, with no benefits or security, rather than people being set on a secure career-path. That coupled with a trend in student choice away from the humanities, and the UK starts to look ok. (Cue a shameless plug for an old blog-post.) But everything is relative.

One of my colleagues asked me last week when the UK job market would get back to ‘normal’. Obviously the pre-REF wave of manic appointing – at Exeter, maybe even more than anywhere else – felt anything but normal. But what is normal? REF cycles have been distorting recruitment patterns for a long time. Then there was the introduction of £9000 fees, which injected a shot of cash into the system, some of which was devoted to creating new jobs and driving down staff-student ratios. But that moment has passed.

And so now? Even those places that have had an unexpectedly good REF are still waiting anxiously to see what this will translate into in quality-related funding. One newspaper story in the pre-Christmas silly season suggested that QR might be abolished. In truth it’s been under threat for years, but it’s surely inconceivable that a decision like that would be made immediately after the REF. A substantial cut in QR, however, is certainly possible, as is a gradual erosion. Managers are also anxious about the election. No party is proposing to increase the cap on fees; plenty are proposing to cut it. Crucially, Labour remains torn over a possible policy of £6000 fees. So if we take all this uncertainty, add a review of the research councils and an impending comprehensive spending review, and dump it down in what are usually the most active months for the UK job market – well, you could hardly call this a return to ‘normal’.

There will, nonetheless, be plenty of talk about workforce planning: moving people on, bringing people in. It is well documented that people who were not submitted to the REF (not so much here, but at many other places) are feeling anxious. I have mixed feelings about this. A couple of years ago I stuck my head out – albeit from a distance of 12,000 miles – in support of the University of Sydney’s forced redundancy programme. But I don’t see very much underperformace among humanities academics in this country, and university managers have rarely had the stomach for performance-related redundancy in our field. Meanwhile, who can predict retirements now that they’re no longer compulsory? So I’d be surprised if there was much more than the usual levels of movement out of the system.

And while the supply of jobs is tight, demand is perhaps higher than ever. One fact I haven’t seen reported is the increase of PhD graduates, year by year, across the last REF cycle. In English Language and Literature, 462 people graduated with PhDs in 2008-09, then 615 in 2012-13 (an increase of 33%). The equivalent figures elsewhere in the humanities are roughly comparable: History produced 394 in 2008-9 and 503 in 2012-13 (up 28%); Modern Languages produced 316 in 2008-9, 412 in 2012-13 (up 30%). (Publishers, meanwhile, are also producing more monographs, which is interesting.) To put these figures in context, around 2000 academics were returned to the English REF panel, while HESA records just under 10,000 academics employed, one way or another, in Humanities subjects in UK universities. (See HESA’s Table K.)

The reasons for this increase in PhD graduates are perhaps the subject for another blog-post. My sense is that they are in part, at least, a product of the REF. If universities are told they will be assessed on the volume of PhDs produced, we’ll find ways of increasing the volume. Whether that’s actually a good thing is perhaps a question for another blog-post again: there are so many interesting arguments, on each side, regarding the question of whether we’re producing too many PhD graduates in the humanities. My only point here is that the numbers are not necessarily being driven by concerns about the future of either individuals or the profession.

Yet another question for a future blog-post might be the proportion of teaching being delivered by non-permanent staff, generally not paid to research. Our conditions are favourable compared to those faced by adjunct lecturers in the US, but the trend makes many of us uncomfortable. In many departments, indeed, performances of the kind recorded in the REF are only really made possible because of a departmental dependence on such support, since it frees time for permanent staff to do their research. For many young lecturers, such jobs are offering a valued foothold on a career-path; but at what point do they cease to be a career in themselves?

I have recent PhD graduates and postdocs on the job-market, so I’ll be keeping a keen eye on the ads over the coming months. It hurts to see excellent people not finding their way into good jobs. But ‘normal’? I’m curious to see what that will be.

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