Friday, December 3, 2010

Harvard's Selection Process and UK Research "Careers"

One of the points that Malcolm Gladwell makes in his beautiful book Outliers is that selections made in face of over-abundance are likely to be random. He cites a study of Harvard undergraduate admissions which shows that there is a large element of chance involved -- the point being that where there is a surfeit of excellence on offer (and the queue of young hopefuls at Harvard's door probably qualifies) it is pretty meaningless to try and select the "best" using anything more high-tech than the toss of a coin.

There's an analogous randomness in the fate of UK research staff (that is, those staff employed only to do research, as opposed to academic faculty members whose remit includes research, teaching and related administrative tasks). These staff are most often known as research assistants (RAs -- a term that gives a clue as to their general status within our Universities).

The custom and practice of RA employment arose in a time when the ratio of research volume to faculty sizes was a lot lower, and it made perfect sense in that context for the position to be a staging post between postgraduate research and faculty jobs. Indeed a common longer form of the term is postdoctoral RA, and in previous periods there was a reasonably strong expectation that this was the final fence to jump on the way to the academic finishing line. There was, in other words, a built-in assumption that being an RA was just as temporary as the state of being a PhD student, for example.

Fast forward to the present (or even to 10 years ago, in fact), and there is now a significant problem with this picture: there are too many RAs for them to ever make the conversion to faculty. In my own department, for example, it is not uncommon for the number of RAs to be double that of faculty, and unless the rate of retirement of the latter leaps into the stratosphere (not impossible, I admit, given that our pensions and the HEFCE funding backbone are currently ConDemned) then most research staff can hold little hope of ever joining the grownups.

Why does this matter? Isn't this even a good thing, given that we want to select only the most committed to take responsibility for the future of research and of degree-level teaching? Mr. Gladwell's Harvard tale would tend to indicate otherwise. UK research is certainly in the world elite, consistently over-achieving relative to its size over a good range of metrics. We are not separating off the cream as much as taking a random sample, and, as modern employment law makes clear, any practice which leads to comparable employees getting different treatment for no good reason is illegitimate. Further, there is no need to claim that we are all of Harvard class to make the point: it is sufficient that a researcher is productive in their field (with all the implications of specialist knowledge and long years of training that this implies) for the waste involved in treating them as casual staff to be clear.

Above and beyond this point there are several other negative outcomes. The current system is:

  • Divisive. In my experience RAs don't usually feel an integral part of the departments and universities in which they work, and as a consequence their commitment to those organisations is often low.
  • Inefficient. Over a three year project an RA often spends the first year learning the job, the second year being productive, and the third year looking for another job.
  • Discouraging. In common with many of my colleagues, I spent 20 years on short-term contracts. If I hadn't been lucky enough to graduate to an open-ended contract I probably would be planning a move out of academia, and given that even now my funding is contingent on continued success within the shifting sands of the research funding agencies, I still don't feel secure.

The key point is that RAs are not temporary: as long as the volume of research being done is greater than the capacity of academic faculty we're here to stay, and in large numbers. This means that a system predicated on employment insecurity is no longer appropriate, and indeed commentators of all shapes and sizes (including former Sheffield VC Gareth Roberts) have advocated radical change of one sort or another.

What are the options? Changing the big picture of research careers requires intervention at a national level, but there are several local measures that can start to change the culture and help make Universities more attractive for contract research staff:

  • Making employment contracts open-ended. This doesn't magically improve job security but it does send out positive signals about our support for research as a career (and also means that responsibility for triggering redundancy moves from HR to the departments, increasing the likelihood of departments taking the issue seriously).
  • Setting up a buffer fund for bridging between research projects. This will necessarily be small-scale to begin with, but can serve as part of our arguments for wider changes in funding structures.
  • Shifting terminology away from "assistant" or "postdoc" and towards "professional researcher" and encouraging funding applications and other career development steps for contract staff.

For a longer version of this list see this discussion paper from Sheffield UCU (which also has links to related documents including the Roberts report). A good summary of the issues from a principal investigator perspective is available on the national UCU site. Time for a change?