Job security of young researchers depends on academic performance of universities

Richard Parncutt

Submitted to “Wissenschaft_Macht_Nachwuchs” (Uni Graz), November 2014
Revised May 2015

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012

My interest in the job security of young researchers draws on my personal experience. Until 1998, I had a tenure-track position ("Lecturer in Psychology of Music and Psychoacoustics") at the Psychology Department, Keele University, UK. I was then offered a professorship at the University of Graz. As an Australian, I could only be offered a temporary contract (Vertragsprofessur) for four years, pending EU citizenship. I was offered a verbal promise of tenure, which I later discovered would depend on the outcome of a vote at a large future meeting. On 5.8.1998, I wrote to the then Rektor:

Ihr Brief macht mir ernsthafte Sorgen, weil er mir wirklich keine beruflich Sicherheit anbietet (...) Für einen Ausländer ist berufliche Sicherheit kritisch. Wenn ich meine Stelle an der Universität Graz verliere, werde ich Österreich verlassen müssen. Wenn ich versuche, illegal zu bleiben, werde ich von der Polizei ausgewiesen. Anschließend würde ich im Normalfall Österreich (evtl. ganz Europa) nie wieder betreten dürfen. Alles, was ich während der vier Jahre meines Vertrages im beruflichen bzw. privaten Leben geschafft hätte, wäre umsonst gewesen.

The background: 1991-1994 I had research and teaching contracts in Canada; 1990-1991, in Germany; 1989-1990, Sweden. During this time I applied for about 100 academic positions in 8 countries. I inadvertently broke immigration laws in Canada and Germany and in both cases was threatened with deportation. I am now one of the lucky ones, with high-security tenure.

There is no simple solution to the problem of improving the position of young researchers. In this paper, I will argue that the best way to improve the employment security of young researchers, and to reduce the inherent precarity of this career path, is to improve the academic performance of individual universities, as measured by peer review, citation frequency, impact factors, and university rankings. If academic quality is the main aim of any university, these strategies also mean spending public money more wisely.

At my university, the rector's office, together with a unit called "Performance and Quality Management", has been making slow and steady progress toward these goals for several years. But sometimes traditions stand in the way of progress, and I wonder what the solution might be. Tradition in itself is a great thing, but when traditions are reducing the ability of the university to compete globally, they have to go. After all, universities have always been in a constant state of flux. We have to look to the future and resist the temptation to instead glorify 19th-century achievements. Our students will be working in the future, not the past. We owe it to them to be more future-oriented without abandoning the secure foundation of tradition. 

The solution, I will argue, is to promote academic quality – but not “excellence”. We usually cannot predict or estimate academic quality with enough accuracy to justify the word "excellence". Research funders may try to objectively distinguish between “good” and “very good” research, but they freely admit there are many sources of bias.

The claim that academic quality and career security can be promoted at the same time
may seem surprising, given the neoliberal context of both employment insecurity and performance indicators. Neoliberal thinking is not only problematic, it is even threatening human survival, e.g. by defending the rising wealth gap, or denying scientific findings that contradict free-market ideology. In spite of this problematic context I will argue that both young researchers and universities as a whole will benefit in the long term when universities more consistently strive for academic quality. At the end I will consider more global financial issues, including how to respond constructively to neoliberalism.

1.    Academic quality

a)    Expecting student researchers to overtake their supervisors

One way to strive for academic quality is to instill a culture in which young researchers are expected to become superior to their superiors. As Louis Armstrong sang in What a wonderful world: "They'll learn much more than I'll every know". This is quite the opposite of the old cliché of the arrogant, self-important professor who expects obedience and dedication from his (yes, I am mainly talking about men here) devoted students and staff. The truth is that promising young researchers often make up for their lack of experience with their more up-to-date academic knowledge and skills, more promising research plans, or more motivation and energy to do the work. If a university is promoting a general culture in which young researchers are expected to overtake their superiors, it may at least be possible to avoid the opposite tendency, which can be quite deadly for the careers of promising young researchers: they may be perceived as a threat and suppressed, e.g. by preventing them from submitting a habilitation thesis. The ample literature on academic harassment demonstrates the size of the problem. I am not suggesting that older academics should sit back and let the younger ones do the work; on the contrary, academic staff of all ages should be under reasonable pressure to produce good, original work.

b)    Transparent, valid/reliable evaluation

In the interest of both young researchers and universities, the quality of high-level research should be evaluated transparently by the most valid and reliable means that are currently available. Peer review is indispensable, because internationally recognized experts in the same specific discipline are more likely than anyone else to pass a reasonable judgment on the quality of a piece of written work. Anonymity for reviewers gives them the freedom to pass negative judgments without fear of personal consequences. The quality of a publication medium (journal impact, publisher reputation and so on) is also relevant because it influences how often a publication is read by an expert target audience. Citation frequency is relevant because it measures the opinions of many people. All these measures have their problems, but decades of experience have shown that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and reliably superior alternatives are lacking.

These things should be obvious, but evidently they are not. Standard bibliometric measures are still often ignored when offering professorships, allocating funding for research projects or institutions, or giving junior positions to promising young researchers. It still seems to be taboo to look people up in Google Scholar and compare their international performance. The reason for the taboo is not that these indicators are problematic (which of course they are, but we don't have better ones), but because colleagues in powerful positions who are performing poorly in academic citations do not want to be exposed.

c)    Critical thinking

Members of staff selection committees often complain that other committee members are not thinking clearly. This seems so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning, and people often think that it is inevitable - we cannot do anything about it, because people are like that. I believe that it is possible to make significant progress toward a solution of this problem by promoting a long-term, transdisciplinary culture of critical thinking across the entire university. That includes clear, constructive, collegial, and caring thinking. (Incidentally, caring about other people is not a sign of academic inferiority! Good research generally involves empathic teamwork.)

Just as all university Bachelor's and Master's curricula are now expected to refer to gender issues, all might include a course that presents general principles of critical thinking and argumentation theory, and applies them to current research questions in the specific discipline. Promoting critical thinking is a fundamental function of universities, and it has been neglected as the research literature expanded: teaching committees have been cramming more and more “knowledge” into curricula, turning students into sophisticated parrots. In a postmodern information society, students need the ability to find the information they need and evaluate it so they can solve problems. Specialist knowledge and critical thinking skills are equally important.

d)    Diversity

Diversity is often considered a soft option; we should be fair to groups that suffer from discrimination, but only after considering all other criteria. But the main reason for promoting diversity may be academic quality. To answer interesting questions, we must consider different perspectives. If that is true, diversity should be high on the list of criteria - for example, when appointing new professors.

Diversity can be promoted at many levels. Candidates for student places, scholarships, fellowships and teaching/research positions who are "somehow different" should be systematically preferred: women in disciplines dominated by men, non-Europeans in disciplines dominated by Europeans, humanities scholars in interdisciplinary areas dominated by “hard scientists”. Diversity promotion is an essential but generally neglected aspect of wise public spending and fair selection procedures, and its importance should be clarified in a mission statement and new developments can be inspired by research.

Again, this may seem obvious. I am mentioning it because in many areas it is still not happening. That is in part because people still fail to realise that diversity is not primarily about fairness. It is about academic quality.

e)    Bilingualism

Leading international experts can only read an article or dissertation if it is written in a language that they understand. That language should be an international language of the discipline in question - usually English. Students who work in that language can better compete in a global academic marketplace (e.g. BRIC countries).

Students should receive expert support in that language throughout their studies, while concurrently maintaining their local language in research and teaching. Conferences in non-English-speaking countries on relevant topics should be bilingual, to balance local and global discourse; otherwise we risk excluding 90% of possible participants, evaluators, and target listeners/readers – a serious example of exclusion! – and undermining the careers of young researchers. Dissertations should be written in the international language of the discipline in question, otherwise it is impossible to check whether they have made a significant original contribution to current international research. Speaking English is not about imitating American or British universities; it is about being better than them, so that they will imitate us.

At the risk of repeating myself: I am saying these seemingly obvious things because they are often still being ignored, and because those who suffer as a result are primarily young researchers in precarious employment situations.

2.    Special problems of German-speaking universities

English-speaking universities have a host of unique problems, but it is not my aim to address them here. The main aim of this document is to improve the career chances of young researchers at German-speaking universities. To achieve that goal, reforms to the doctorate and habilitation in German-speaking universities are urgently needed. To help young researchers compete in the global academic marketplace, both the
doctorate and the habilitation should be adjusted, first to reflect global standards, and after that to exceed them.

Current doctoral curricula, habilitation procedures, and professorial selection procedures have an interesting point in common. There is a general tendency to believe that decisions at this high academic level can be made mainly within a single university. Dissertations are examined in part by supervisors and internal examiners, and internal habilitation and selection committees can completely ignore external reviews, if they want to. But leading international experts on a given research question are almost always working in different countries, and they usually do not speak German. Given the obvious importance of the opinions of international experts, their exclusion from such procedures, to the detriment of a university's own academic performance, may be considered a form of xenophobia. The solution, of course, is to include the international experts -- not only as helpful additions to the committee, but as people who actually make binding decisions.

a)    One short doctoral curriculum for the whole university

The main aim of the doctorate in most countries is to make a “significant original contribution to research”. The only people in the world who are in a position to recognize a “significant original contribution” are well established, internationally recognized, currently active researchers in the same specific area. To make this evaluation, they don’t need guidelines; they decide the criteria themselves.

The curricula of doctoral programs should essentially say and enable just that. Everything else is secondary, and can be omitted. To guarantee a fair examination, there should be three independent examiners, so that in case of disagreement the final decision is by majority vote; to prevent Anglophone dominance, their first languages should generally be different.

The foundation for a fair doctoral examination must be a written thesis, and nothing else. The supervisor’s additional knowledge of the candidate is both irrelevant and biased, due to his/her personal relationship. If the supervisor contributes to the examination, the student will then be under pressure to support the supervisor’s work and ideas, which contradicts the principle of academic independence. Given the enormous importance of PhDs for the academic productivity of a university, the conflation of supervision and examination in German-speaking countries must be one of the main reasons why they are doing so poorly in university rankings.

Administrative and legal hurdles within the PhD curriculum should be reduced to a minimum, to encourage students to focus creatively on their main task of making a significant original contribution. Coursework should be confined to materials that cannot reasonably be taught in a master’s program - that’s what master’s programs are for, and two years are enough. PhD coursework should be confined to practical tips on presenting at conferences, submitting to journals, applying for grants or university positions, succeeding as a woman in a male-dominated environment, or working across relevant disciplines. Since these points are equally true in all disciplines, there should be only one doctoral curriculum for the entire university.

Many of these ideas apply to doctorates in any country. The need to remove coursework from the doctorate is particularly important in US universities. German-speaking universities should not imitate the US model if it is even worse than their own.

b)    The end of the Habilitation

A quick browse through the rank order of universities according to Times Higher (etc.) suggests a remarkable negative correlation between the presence of a strong habilitation tradition and a university’s academic performance. The relationship may not be causal, but it is suggestive.

I see two problems:
(i) Habilitation theses at German-speaking universities are often written in German, which excludes most potential examiners.
(ii) Examiners cannot reliably conceal their identity from the candidate, so they do not feel free to give a negative judgment.
International peer-review journals do not suffer from either of these problems. It follows that a single good publication in a good journal can be more valuable than an entire Habilitation thesis. This is not a wild claim; it follows logically from the above two points. That explains why academics in countries without Habilitation often consider it irrelevant.

Beyond that, young researchers should not spend their most productive years writing a book that few will read. That is true both in the humanities and the sciences. Both their career and their institution would be better served if they published articles in leading journals or books with leading publishers.

In the interest of academic standards, the careers of young researchers, and the efficient use of public funds, the Habilitation should be abandoned. The decision at to whether an individual should be allowed to teach an advanced course or supervise in a given area should depend on her or his PhD and/or recent publications in that area.

3.    The social and political context

The existential threat of unemployment among young researchers is not confined to academic careers. The threat can be reduced by fundamental social and economic reforms such as universal basic income (which would enable young researchers to remain academically productive during periods of unemployment) and globally harmonized taxation on wealth, international transactions, and environmental resources (to finance basic income, among other things). Political strategies must be developed to counter the broadening wealth gap, which incidentally is a predictable consequence of economic globalization (so we should not act surprised).

If universities are really interested in promoting the interests of young researchers, and not just talking about it, they should be considering the social and political context and actively promoting the necessary political reforms. Contrary to popular belief, universities can and should do this.

The future of young researchers is also directly threatened by the unsustainability of global economics and, related to that, global environmental degradation. Many academic colleagues are in denial about these problems, which makes them difficult to address. Mainstream climate science and economic theory suggest that the global economic collapses of the 21st century will be much worse than both 1929 and 2008. That is a serious threat to individual researchers, entire universities, and even the human species.

If universities care about their young researchers, and are prepared to share responsibility for global problems, they should more aggressively push obvious solutions such as honoring the universal promise to invest 0.7% GDP on official development assistance (to sustainably reduce global poverty) and pushing a rapid transition to 100% sustainable energy (which must incidentally include restrictions on flying to academic conferences).

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