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Accepting more PhDs is not the right response to the cuts in education — stop destroying the academic job market

This article of mine, which is basically a plea to academic departments to stop taking part in the destruction of the already skewed job market, was published in the Huffington Post, so for any comments, visit the original article.

The two traditional reasons for the destruction of the academic job market are attributed to the marketisation of education and to the government cuts in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences. Although these are the causes of the crisis, the structural damage is done by the reaction of the departments to the new status quo.

Once the academic departments came face-to-face with the realities of the cuts, they tried to find alternative means of attracting money. Their first reaction was to increase the fees to £9,000, to reach the new ceiling set by the government. The next step, was to attract more students, by increasing their annual intake; the premise being that more students will bring more money. However, an increase in the number of students requires an investment in infrastructure to support them. Increasing the number of Undergraduates takes a lot of effort (read: money), since it requires larger lecture theatres, more seminar rooms, more library resources, more academic and non-academic staff, more bureaucracy and finally, a way to maintain or ideally to increase the department’s student satisfaction rating (National Student Survey – NSS) without compromising its quality of research (Research Excellence Framework – REF).

Student satisfaction matters a lot in the league-table culture that became the norm in the UK. It is, for example, one of the main evaluating points in Guardian’s University Guide. At the same time, another quantitative measure, “the REF”, largely determines the money that each department is going to receive. The REF is a measure used by the government to assess the quality of research taking place in each University. The higher the score a university has, the better its chances of attracting funding. When lecturers do not prepare courses, teach, mark papers, meet with students, do (required) administrative tasks, they worry about the REF and the NSS. The available time for research is increasingly shortened, whereas the process of research assessment has become ‘entirely self-serving’.

Once it became obvious that increasing the Undergraduate intake wouldn’t cover the funding lost by the education cuts, the next step was to increase the number of Postgraduate students. After all, Masters and PhD students require much less investment in infrastructure than Undergraduates do. Unsurprisingly though, Masters applications decreased in the year following the fee increases. It was then that the PhD admissions became the next frontier in the battle of squeezing money out of students.

Increasing the number of PhD students is very attractive to Universities because the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs. A PhD student’s needs are limited to having access to a library and to around eight supervisions per year. Many Universities don’t even provide their PhD students with an office anymore — some universities have adopted hot-desking where many students share a single desk, while other universities just point to the library for all of their students’ studying needs.

Each PhD student at a Russell Group University, will bring in around £4000 to her institution of choice. This number is significantly higher for Oxbridge PhDs, since additional £4,000-5,000 are needed for the College fees. PhD students are not only easy money for Departments whose funding has been stripped by the Coalition government. They are also cheap workforce that is employed to accommodate the influx of undergraduate students, who require tutors to teach their seminars.

What the Social Sciences and the Humanities departments across the UK are doing, is destroying the academic job market, as they don’t take into consideration the demand for PhD students or the availability of post-doctoral positions when accepting PhD students. Universities don’t consider any more whether their PhD students will have realistic chances of employment once they successfully graduate. What they do is flood the market with PhDs, for the sole benefit of their own.

The ideal scenario would be for departments to accept only those PhD students that they can give a salary to. This is the model adopted in Scandinavia, the US and in Canada. What the academic departments in the UK are doing at the moment is as irresponsible as it is dangerous for their own future. If your academic staff are living in a constant state of job-insecurity, they are far less likely to do anything out of the ordinary—they will be too busy writing their new article for peer-review that will be counted towards their evaluation; they won’t be investing time in long-term ground-breaking projects. The route chosen by Universities will result in less innovation, less academic freedom, more PhDs and post-docs doing the lion’s share of the work and increasingly less tenured positions. The irony of all this is that student satisfaction is directly linked to the well-being of the academic staff.

We should not blame the Departments for everything that is wrong in higher education. They are merely reacting to the attack of the government and to the newly adopted attitude towards education, which is now seen as a commodity rather than as a right. As far as the Departments go, the only thing we, the students and teachers, can meaningfully do, is point out their mistake and call for them to stop.

If we really want to point fingers we must turn to the government, which is even more eager in its attack, asking from departments to save additional £570m for the next financial year. Then, we should turn to the upper management of each academic institution that controls the bureaucracy that casts its shade upon the whole of the university and which forces the departments to find money where there is none, whilst their own salaries are disproportionately high and keep rising.