Academic retrenchments

I’ve just seen the reports from the Time Higher Education about compulsory academic redundancies at King’s College London, Imperial College, and possibly also University College London. Although I think some redundancies may have happened in the past, this is still somewhat unprecedented. Until sometime in the 1990s most UK academics had tenure, meaning that it was virtually impossible for them to be fired or made redundant. This has now changed and all new appointments, or anyone who has been promoted, is now on what is known as an open-ended contract. This does mean that redundancy is possible, but – until now – academics have been effectively permanent.

One could argue that times are tough for everyone and if there are redundancies in other sectors, why shouldn’t it be true for academia too. This may be a valid point, but let me tell you a personal story that may put this into some perspective. Including my years as a PhD student, I have worked (I was fortunate to be fully employed for most of my PhD) in the academic sector for almost 20 years. I’ve worked professionally on numerous different continents, I’ve moved across the Atlantic a number of times, and my 2 children were born in different countries (they don’t even share a citizenship at the moment). Prior to returning to the UK, I had a tenure-track position in the US. What attracted me to academia was getting paid what I felt was a fair wage to do a job I enjoyed, that gave me some freedom, and that provided job security. Although I have largely enjoyed everything I have done with may career so far, in some sense I have sacrificed quite a lot to get to where I am today. In particular, I don’t live anywhere near my or my wife’s parents or siblings and my children rarely see their grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. If 5 or 6 years ago, when I was evaluating my career options quite carefully, I had felt that academic jobs would be less secure in the future, I would have seriously considered alternative career options. Although I have no reason to believe that this will happen to me, if I was to be made redundant I would feel extremely cheated and deceived. In some sense, the sacrifices that academics make are made in return for job satisfaction and job security.

Although the above may illustrate why many academics may feel justifiably annoyed if faced with redundancy, it’s not really a strong argument for not doing it. Most people who are made redundant are probably more than justified in feeling annoyed and let down. The caveat, however, is how do you – in the future – attract people from all over the world to work in British universities if you remove what are the attractive aspects of such a career – job satisfaction and job security? This isn’t to say that those who take advantage of this job security and perform poorly shouldn’t risk losing their jobs. British universities may well have been soft on poorly performing academics, but in my experience the number of such people is really quite small. Compared to some academics I met while working in the US, most UK academics that I have encountered are extremely dedicated and hard working researchers and teachers. To a certain extent Britain already struggles to compete with the top US universities in attracting the top people. Introducing compulsory redundancies in some of Britain’s top universities is not going to make it any easier.

There is maybe one argument why making academics redundant is not quite the same as redundancies in other sectors. When an organisation is not performing well, making staff redundant reduces costs, allows the organisation to become more competitive, and ultimately may help the economy overall (not sure how true this is, but let’s assume it is for now). Those made redundant clearly suffer as a result, but hopefully find new careers when things improve. It’s not clear that the same argument applies in the University sector. Making redundancies now may save money (which is clearly the goal) but will damage the sector’s ability to attract the top people into academic jobs in the future. It’s therefore not clear that making redundancies will strengthen the sector in the long term. Academics also tend to become very specialised. I suspect that I would find it much harder now to find a job outside academia than I would have done 10 or 15 years ago. I’m probably either over-qualified or too expensive. Why hire me when you can probably hire someone younger who will cost less (even if I was willing to take a lower salary I’m not convinced that I would find work easily). What is more, when things improve it is unlikely that universities would then rehire those who’ve been made redundant. It is possible that academics find it harder to recover from a redundancy than those in other sectors, although in no way do I think it is easy for those in other sectors.

An obvious concern I have in making the above argument is that it will be interpreted as an arrogant academic arguing that we should be given special treatment. In fact similar arguments may actually apply in other sectors. The short term economic benefits of making redundancies may be destroyed by the reduction in loyalty and trust. So what is the reason for the introduction of compulsory redundancies in some of the UK’s top universities. Well, it is presumably a lack of money. Personally I don’t believe that now is the time to make cuts in the HE sector and we should be arguing that making such cuts will do damage to the UK economy as a whole. On the other hand, things will be very difficult for quite some time, so maybe we need to accept that some cuts are fair and necessary. Some US universities are actually introducing salary reductions and furloughs. Although I don’t think I get paid too much, I would be willing to accept a reduction in salary if it removed the need to make compulsory redundancies. With young kids I would also be fairly happy to work half a day less per week in exchange for a reduction in salary (although I would probably want to have an agreement that this wouldn’t be permanent). As a sector we should be doing everything we can to avoid making compulsory redundancies, but we also need to be careful not to end up being classed together with those in the financial sector who are threatening to leave the country if they don’t continue to get paid ridiculous salaries. I believe in the value of the UK HE sector and believe it has a very positive impact on the UK both socially and economically. I think that academics should be willing to make some kind of sacrifice to keep the UK HE sector world leading, and protect something that has been and should continue to be of benefit to everyone in the UK.

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