Permanent jobs are becoming increasingly rare in the academic world. Young researchers are often forced to hop from one temporary contract to the next. ‘The traditional academic is now a threatened species.’
illustration Paul Gerlach
Should you stay on for a PhD or not? Steven de Rooij, currently a postdoc at Leiden University, faced this choice when he finished his Master’s in Theoretical Information Studies at the University of Amsterdam. ‘My professor said, “I don’t recommend it if you want to be sure of a stable job.”’ His advice surprised De Rooij and he decided to go for a doctorate anyway. ‘I was really keen to do the research.’
Nine years later, after four temporary postdoc jobs at different institutions, De Rooij understands what his prof was warning about. ‘There are few permanent positions and the competition is huge.’ He doesn’t know yet what he will do when his current contract in Leiden ends. ‘I’m actually quite disappointed with the way things are in the academic world. My expectations were based on my father, an emeritus professor of history. He said that if you did good work and developed the right contacts, you would eventually automatically get a decent post. But those days were clearly very different.’
De Rooij’s story is typical of the situation that increasing numbers of young academics are finding themselves in, if we are to believe the scientists’ union VAWO. Chair Marijtje Jongsma says the proportion of ‘flex-academics’ including PhD candidates is currently around 60 percent; excluding PhD candidates, it is about 40 percent (see the graphs). All these academic staff struggle with the long-term uncertainty, difficulties in insuring against occupational disability and problems building up a decent pension.
VAWO gets a lot of complaints about this. It exerts pressure on universities to improve job security. Jongsma: ‘As an academic, you spend years developing yourself until you become an expert in your field. So you don’t want to end up as a “disposable scientist”’.
In the 2015 collective labour agreement for universities, the unions managed to get a promise that no more than 22 percent of all teaching vacancies would be for four years or less from then on. However, in practice universities have various means of wiggling out of this, says Jongsma. ‘Some universities have gone for blanket offers of five-year contracts for their teaching staff; that lets them formally stay nicely under the 22 percent limit, but a five-year contract still means you have a temporary job.’
Even tenure track contracts, in which young researchers have to work hard for a few years to prove they are good enough for a permanent position, are temporary even if they are for more than four years. Jongsma: ‘In Anglo-Saxon countries a tenure track position is a permanent job: it’s “up or stay” whereas in the Netherlands it’s “up or out”. If you manage to achieve the targets you can hope to get a permanent post and otherwise it’s tough luck.’
Academics are forced into ‘university hopping’. ‘Everyone in this scene knows stories of young lecturers who give one another tips in the train about where work can be found. You end up hopping across the country,’ says Jongsma.
This is not a very enticing picture ‑ why would anyone still want a job in academia? After all, a Master’s from a university gives you plenty of opportunities in other sectors. ‘That’s true,’ says Jongsma, ‘but if you still want an academic career after spending ten years on your Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD, you’ve proved yourself to be passionate about your subject. Our enthusiasm is also our Achilles heel because that attitude is what makes it so easy to exploit us.’
Peter Tamas agrees. He works at the Education and Competence Studies Group at Wageningen University & Research, where he specializes in research methodology. He calls it ‘ideological exploitation’: it is easy to take advantage of ambitious people. He himself has a permanent job as a lecturer in methodology but a temporary contract as a researcher that ends in two months’ time. ‘Such flexible contracts are a complete mess’, says the American.
Switching to a ‘regular’ career is not an option for Tamas. He laughs. ‘Who’s interested in a research methodologist? I like to ask fundamental questions, but many companies find that threatening.’
But do academics actually have any reason to complain? Isn’t a temporary contract just part and parcel of the modern, increasingly flexible job market? No, says Prof. Andries de Grip, director of the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA) in Maastricht. In his view, academia would benefit from a larger nucleus of permanent staff. ‘The advantage of flexible contracts for employers is that you can easily make switches, but the downside is that you are hardly investing at all in knowledge and continuity. Whereas that is particularly important for universities. Now they are threatening to turn into organizations with an aging top plus a large group of young, constantly changing workforce below. That doesn’t help continuity.’
VAWO chair Jongsma regularly hears people saying that society in general is turning into a ‘gig economy’ and that just happens to be the way the labour market is these days. ‘But apart from professional football, there is no other sector with as many people on a temporary contract as in the academic world. Even big companies have no more than 15 to 20 percent temporary employees.’
She says the academic world is increasingly adopting an hourglass model. ‘The upper part consists of professors and associate professors who almost invariably have a permanent post. The lower part consists of the nomads. The traditional academic, with a permanent job and whose time is split evenly between research and teaching, is now a threatened species. It’s bizarre that we are accepting this situation.’