Perspectives on education

by Professor Roger Kain FBA

8 Apr 2015

In March, the British Academy held the first seminar in its ‘Perspectives on Education’ series. This series of seminars will be held at the British Academy throughout 2015, and will cover issues across education policy, from schools, through higher education and vocational education, to undergraduate provision and research training. We will use these lunchtime seminars to attract a range of educational policy makers from across the sector, the civil service, think tanks and academic bodies, to engage with topical issues in education policy and also provide an opportunity to network. The format is short and simple: a chair and three speakers, followed by discussion and a sandwich lunch.

The first seminar in this series focused on career support in academia. Stimulated by the British Academy and the AHRC’s recent report Support for Arts and Humanities Researchers Post-PhD, it explored how researchers build careers in academia, the challenges they face, and perhaps most importantly, what the career expectations might be of those choosing to pursue higher academic qualifications.

The discussion highlighted a number of important issues for anyone working in the academic field, regardless of career point. A first clear message from this seminar is that early career researchers (ECRs) hoping to build a career in academia are employed on a wide range of contracts and undertake a variety of roles. This means that we need to think carefully about how we define an ECR; a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work for supporting all ECRs. For example, researchers in the arts and humanities are likely to have different styles of employment to those in other discipline areas – moving between academia and industry is much more common in engineering, for example. Universities should take account of the fact that the experience of researchers in different disciplines is not necessarily the same.

One of our speakers, Professor Jennifer Richards of the University of Newcastle, highlighted the prevalence of teaching-only contracts. These kinds of contracts, which employ staff only to undertake teaching, are frequently accepted by ECRs ultimately hoping to pursue a research career, yet they can create a path dependency that has a knock-on effect later on in one’s career. There would perhaps be value in institutions thinking about their research staff more holistically.

A related point, raised repeatedly throughout the discussion, was a ‘jump’ that exists between PhD and a sustained career in academia. In the arts, humanities and social sciences, schemes such as ESRC’s Future Research Leaders and the British Academy Post-doctoral fellowships are perhaps most suited to those already embarked on an academic career.

Another clear message is the difference between institutional claims and the experiences of researchers. Professor Helen Beebee of the University of Manchester pointed to some of the statistics from the British Academy-AHRC funded report: while 85% of Research Organisations agreed that “Researchers are recognised and valued as an essential part of our human resources”, only 35% of ECRs agreed that this chimed with their personal experience. The disconnect here might be the extent to which ECRs are actually aware of the support that their institutions could be offering them. Agreements such as the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers are important as a means of setting institutional standards, but they need to be communicated to and made meaningful for the researchers they are in place to support. There is work to be done to more clearly articulate the commitments that institutions have towards the ECRs they employ and for ECRs to know where to turn for support. Commitments must go beyond simply an institutional statement or policy.

The final important message that I would like to highlight is that, for those in the arts and humanities in particular, the range of career options PhD training can open up is not fully explored either by individuals or institutions. A majority would prefer to remain in academia, but this just isn’t possible for everyone. Those who have undertaken a PhD should be helped to think about the broad range of careers that are now available to them, and to which their research skills are well suited. Some reworking of the relationships between university careers services, academic staff, research students and early career researchers could be encouraged with profit. Researchers tend to seek (and value) advice from their academic mentors. A remaining challenge is to engage research leaders in the career development options of younger researchers. Complementary advice on other career options for which a background in research is relevant could be promoted by careers advisors. As another speaker, Alison Mitchell, Director of Development at Vitae, put it neatly, “once a researcher, always a researcher, but not necessarily an academic post holder”.

The next Perspectives on Education – Diverse and disparate: regulation, accountability and market forces in education – will be held on 29 April 2015 .

Roger Kain is the British Academy’s Vice-President (Research and HE Policy) and Chief Executive of the School of Advanced Study.

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