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Why is the academic job market so bad?
An occupational hazard of following a lot of academic accounts on Twitter is being exposed to innumerable tweets complaining about how bad the academic job market is. As an erstwhile academic myself, I can attest this is a subject of constant discussion among members of that profession. In the UK, academics have been striking over working conditions, on-and-off, since 2018. (The latest strikes took place in February and March of this year.)
Aside from low pay and long working hours, the most commonly heard complaint among academics is the immense difficulty of securing a permanent paid position. Many young scholars find themselves drifting from temporary contract to temporary contract, never able to settle down somewhere for good. During this seemingly endless job search, their yearly income remains stagnant, while their employability outside of academia deteriorates.
Why is the situation bad? Some academics, including a lot of the ones you see moaning on Twitter, are inclined to blame the greediness of university managers. If only they stopped hoarding all the money for themselves, there would be enough jobs for everyone! Now, there is a grain of truth in this accusation. As the table below indicates, the number of “managers and non-academic professionals” increased by a whopping 60% between 2005 and 2017. And many of those managers are being paid a tidy sum. (In 2019, Imperial College London’s Vice Chancellor took home an impressive £554,000.)
Yet miserly management – I would argue – is only a small part of the problem. To begin with, it’s not even clear that Vice Chancellors’ exorbitant salaries are out of step with pay levels in the private sector. (The managers of large banks take home about ten times as much each year.) Universities could pay senior managers much less, but given that they’re competing with other large institutions to attract talent, they’d probably end up with worse applicants, and this could more than outweigh the money saved on remuneration. For example, Imperial College spends about £1 billion per year. If just 1% of that money is wasted, we’re talking about ten million quid down the drain.
The fundamental issue is that a lot of people want to be academics, particularly in Britain, and there simply aren’t enough jobs for them all. Supply of academic labour greatly exceeds demand. As a result, universities have all the bargaining power. This means they can advertise temporary jobs with low pay and long working hours, and many highly qualified people will apply for them. If applicants were scarce, and universities were struggling to get enough faculty, they’d have to make job offers more attractive. But applicants aren’t scarce, so they don’t. (The same logic of supply and demand explain why landlords in London can charge hundreds of pounds per month for shoebox apartments.)
One counter to this line of reasoning is that the academic job market isn’t completely segregated from the rest of the labour market. Academics can go and work in the private sector if they can’t find a university job, so doesn’t this ensure that wages for university jobs remain in some kind of equilibrium with the private sector? (I’m using ‘wage’ as a shorthand for ‘wages, working conditions and all other compensating differentials’.) The answer is that it does, but the equilibrium wage varies a lot from one academic field to another.
There are plenty of lucrative opportunities outside academia for newly minted PhDs in fields like engineering, statistics and computer science. This tends to put a check on just how bad the academic job market can get. If computer science departments only advertised jobs with low pay and long working hours, everyone could just go and work in the private sector. However, the same is much less true in the arts and humanities. There are many fewer opportunities outside academia for graduates in those disciplines. As a result, the academic job market tends towards what Marxists call “exploitation”. (Ironically, a lot of the people working in said job market are Marxists.)
Aside from being poorly qualified, another reason why all the low paid academics don’t just pack it in and move to the private sector is that many of them don’t care very much about money. They didn’t spent years writing their dissertations only to wind up as overqualified pen-pushers in some vast corporate machine. Unfortunately for them, many of their peers are in exactly the same position. And this makes for a lot of competition.
So why are there so many more academics than academic jobs? One straightforward reason is that, if you do manage to bag a position somewhere, being an academic is pretty cushy life. Sure, you don’t get paid very much (at least compared to lawyers, doctors or bankers). But the work is rewarding, and there’s a lot of flexibility. It’s therefore not surprising that, in a 2015 YouGov survey, “academic” was the third most desired job in Britain, behind “author” and “librarian”. (Twice as many people said “academic” than said “investment banker”.) This result is consistent with an ONS analysis, which found that “teaching and educational” was the second most popular job category among young people, after “artistic, literary and media”.
Another, more proximate reason is that academic departments recruit far more PhD students than there are academic positions. One paper found that the average engineering professor graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his career, only one of whom can replace the professor’s position. This implies that “in a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA”. And that’s engineering – a discipline where graduates have good prospects outside academia! As one “anonymous academic” noted in the Guardian, “It is essential for universities to cease the irresponsible recruitment of as many PhD students as possible”. Others have compared academic hiring to a pyramid scheme.
Yet another reason is language – specifically the fact that English is by far the most common second language. This means that many highly qualified academics from all over the world apply to work in Britain. Of course, many British academics apply to work overseas too. But because so few Britons speak a second language, they mainly go to places like the US, Canada and Australia. Though I can’t seem to track down any recent data, the total number of foreign academics working in Britain must be greater than the total number of British academics working abroad. (If you scan the websites for top UK departments, you’ll find highly qualified people from all around the globe. I doubt this is true, at least to the same extent, in places like France, Spain or Italy – let alone China.)
Okay, so a lot of people want to be academics, but there aren’t that many spots. Why don’t universities just expand to make room for the excess? One reason is that society (i.e., the taxpayer) has priorities other than simply funding a jobs program for academics. Any money spent on creating new academic positions is money that can’t go toward things like topping up pensions, improving the NHS or bolstering the armed forces. Another reason is that universities have been squandering their money on pointless rebranding exercises and “student welfare” boondoggles, not to mention legions of “diversity” administrators. (Notice the massive increases in rows three and four of the table above.)
Why are so many budding scholars working long hours for low pay, unable to ever land a permanent job? It’s not because university managers just feel like being mean. The truth is there are too many people chasing too few positions, and until that changes, the job market isn’t going to get any better. If you’re onto your third short-term teaching gig at the Former Polytechnic University of North Swansea, I’d cut your losses and look for something else.
Image: Chensiyuan, Aerial panorama of Oxford, 2016
The Diversity Industrial Complex
James McSweeny has written an excellent piece for UnHerd explaining why there are so many people in Britain with “Diversity” in their job title. Here’s an excerpt:
Subsequent regulations (introduced by Conservative ministers) toughened Section 149 — imposing on public bodies a requirement to publish measurable “equity objectives”, including a concrete steps to strengthen diversity and extensive annual reports on progress. This effectively meant that every public body — from your local hospital trust to the Royal Navy — had to hire a diversity bureaucracy … According to LinkedIn, the UK now has twice as many D&I workers per capita as any other country.
The Daily Sceptic
I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first discusses the morality of supply arms to Ukraine. The second asks what Ukraine and the West should have done if the plan put forward by John Mearsheimer wasn’t even worth trying. The third responds to a critique of my post on the morality of supply arms to Ukraine. The fourth notes that evidence from Singapore suggests vaccine effectiveness against death has been overestimated.
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