The Fiction of Tenured Unsackables

A Guardian piece entitled “Unsackable senior staff make life even harder for junior academics” has been doing the rounds on Twitter for a few days now. In the Anonymous Academic series, the author depicts an academic career path that resembles an NHS ward obstructed by elderly ‘bed blockers’. The senior and mid-career ranks of academia are apparently gridlocked by those whose tenure grants them both permanency and the ability to evade current expectations of research ‘productivity’ imposed by many universities.

Let’s do some fact checking here. There is no doubt that there has been appalling exploitation of qualified PhDs in the context of mounting casualization of undergraduate teaching, and research contracts. UCEA (the university employers’ association) claims that ‘atypical’ contracts arise from universities’ need for “input from skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses”, and that they only represent 3.2% of the full-time equivalent academic workforce. Meanwhile, the website Wonkhe has this to say, “In the Russell Group…69% of atypical academics are paid at teaching assistant or research assistant rates or lower. If this is a reserve army of specialist professional labour, it’s not charging a very good hourly rate”.

Leaving on one side the question of whether appointed senior faculty are collectively responsible for this situation, it is just not true to portray senior staff as ‘unsackable’. UK academics have not had tenure since Mrs Thatcher dispensed with it in 1981. Precarity, even in the senior ranks of professor and reader, has escalated in recent years as aggressive performance management policies have brought about threats of demotion, which in turn have triggered cases of burnout or a simple desire to move beyond the intrusive bullying of the HR department. And so we witness a wave of resignations at mid-career and senior levels, which, by the way, is gendered; a large number of women have decided they just don’t want to live like this anymore.

I am well aware that the quality of new entrants to the profession is extremely high, and entry-level academic posts come with long periods of probation. Confirmation may only be achieved after a searching performance review and the performance criteria are designed not to diagnose competence, but to stigmatise all but the most exceptional achievers. However, this approach to management now blights the entire profession. There are no easy gigs any more in academia. All university academics are obliged by law to undergo annual appraisal, and in many universities this has been transformed from a supportive and appreciative dialogue with a senior colleague, into the ruthless scrutiny of ‘performance management’. The criteria have been ratcheted ever upwards as universities place ascent in the league tables above the mental health of their employees, and the criteria are intended to designate many excellent academics as failing.

This effect has been most magnified at professorial level. I have seen many documents from different universities which lay out performance criteria for professors. Commonly these include: research grant capture targets, research leadership (institutional roles,  journal editorships or leading professional organisation), conference keynotes, student evaluation scores, PhD supervision completions, research ‘outputs’ at 3* or 4* and other metrics such as journal impact factors/ citation indices. In many cases, all of these must be fulfilled in order to avoid punitive disciplinary processes. So with all this to attend to, perhaps it is understandable if senior staff produce fewer publications than less frantic colleagues. As Dorothy Bishop writes, “Even if you’re not worried about your own job, it is hard to be cheerfully productive when surrounded by colleagues in states of high distress”. Besides being unethical, this has a destabilizing effect on all academics. I take this to be intentional on the part of management.

This response is not without a nostra culpa. Our generation has not resisted forcefully enough the creeping casualization of universities. Often it has been in the interests of senior staff to have a ready supply of postgraduate teaching assistants and postdoctoral researchers to do the heavy lifting on a grant-aided project. We have sat on interview panels and marvelled at the publication and teaching records of new academic appointees. But the professors and mid-career academics are largely not responsible for the instability of funding that afflicts universities, nor the relinquishing of academic futures to the impulsive choices of the nation’s 18-year olds. The chief culprits are government policies which have encouraged vice-chancellors to play the short game, and many of them have chosen the path of least resistance. Academics who have raised their voices in protest have been swiftly branded as ivory tower ancients who refuse to live in the real world.

Having recently left the academy, perhaps I might offer the wisdom of hindsight. Above all, be kind to others. Endeavour not to let anger at your own harsh treatment displace concern for others coming behind you. Support your younger colleagues, and value your older ones. Looking in the wrong direction for others to blame is divisive and unhelpful.  Join the union to campaign for a fair and sustainable career structure for research and research/teaching posts. Campaign against the appalling waste and disregard for talent. Take care to build a community, as well as a publications record. The academy should not just be a crucible for your own advancement. I am indebted to my colleague Nick Megoran of Newcastle University who has drawn my attention to Phil Cohen’s (2015) discussion (cf Weber) of vocation versus career.

Vocation unfolds as an inner directed quest or drive for an authentic self, primarily through the realisation of a special gift, talent, or calling. It is associated with the mastery of artistic or spiritual disciplines and with various forms of service. Vocation operates largely within the framework of a moral economy of worth, in which the value of the work performed under its sign is the means of satisfaction it produces. Authenticity is its benchmark. Career, in contrast, unfolds as so many steps up a ladder of personal ambition, marked by increments of status and income, often correlated with the achievement of professional qualifications and other so called performance indicators. Career operates entirely within a market economy of worth, every promotion is indexed to the competitive value of the work within a segmented labour market. Career is other-directed, it is driven by the desire to outperform one’s peers. Success is its benchmark.

It would be very easy to surrender to others the judgements for success and achievement. You should learn to be sceptical of performance indicators, promotions criteria and other institutional quantifiers. They are far from objective, and have a tendency to retreat just as you reach the required level. You may be cresting the wave now, but, by no fault of your own, you could find yourself beached on a sand bar. The author indicates they are in the early stages of an academic career, so they may not be aware of the tendency for managerial incentives to shift, sometimes quite suddenly and capriciously. For example, in arts and humanities, for most of my career, single authored monographs were seen as the hallmark of good scholarship. This regard has dissolved as the science model of research evaluation has superseded disciplinary autonomy. Grant capture is now the most essential signifier of esteem, and monetary value takes precedence over published outcomes. Who knows what might be the next deal-breaker for promotion – international collaborations, spinout companies, policy and advising work? Your senior colleagues will have shifted tack several times trying to comply with the vagaries of government and management behests. And they were probably as disdainful of their seniors as you are now. To paraphrase David Cameron’s words to Tony Blair, many of us end our careers with a sense that we were the future once. All we can do is the work that gives us pleasure, strive to preserve our integrity and try and leave the profession in better shape than we found it.



Cohen, Phil. 2015, ‘From vocation to career: the organic crisis of the political class.’ LW Blog


2 thoughts on “The Fiction of Tenured Unsackables”

  1. Great post – as usual. Becky Francis (UCL) spoke about a similar malaise regarding how more experienced (female) academics worked with less experienced counterparts. She suggested an approach like yours (be kind, support and encourage) summarised as the ‘generous academic’. A term I find useful – it doesn’t mean to be nice or always agreeing, but being generous in support, constructive feedback and so on.


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