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The myth of academic meritocracy

An awful lot of talent and experience is about to be wasted

Artillery Row

University admissions season is with us once again. Recently I’ve been advising a young relative on the process, and the experience has made me feel strangely nervous, as I reflect on the “sliding doors” consequences of a decision made — often on flaky criteria — at the age of seventeen. University choices don’t just dictate what you do for the next three years but shape everything that happens thereafter: your career prospects, where you live, your friendship group for life, and potentially your marriage. Choosing the wrong course at the wrong place can be a matter of lifelong regret.

Even more gutting is not getting on to the right course. Every year, countless bright young people get passed over for places at Oxbridge — admission to which really can change your life. Every straight-A Oxbridge reject has gritted their teeth as someone told them that under the old two-E offer system, they partied through the upper sixth and arrived with a brace of Bs and Cs. The system is more rigorous now, and Oxford and Cambridge are going to enormous lengths to diversify their student body, but the brutal truth is that simply too many people want to go. Whichever way you try to square it, the system will never be “fair”. Someone extremely clever and deserving will always slip through the net.

What is less well known is that this intense fight for “places” also takes place amongst university lecturers. If anyone thinks all the brilliant academics are at Russell-Group institutions and that everyone who teaches at a post-92 is an also-ran, they are very much misinformed. Academics are not lined up in order, ranked from best to worst — either in terms of research productivity, teaching skills or any other measure — with jobs allocated accordingly. The system is far more capricious. Wherever your child goes to university, they can expect to be taught by many lecturers who are incredibly inspiring and a few who are rather dull. Although there is probably a greater preponderance of research “stars” in the Russell Group, look closely enough and you will definitely find some, sparkling brightly, in the post-92s.

Academic hiring is an imperfect process. Often a decision hinges upon what’s required institutionally at a particular moment in time: the person whose research topic happens to complement a department’s existing staff teaching capabilities gets the gig. Similarly, hiring committees will often find themselves tearing their hair out as they struggle to choose between several equally well-qualified and eminently appointable people. In the end a decision must be made. Further down the line, when successful candidate A is being a pain in the backside and hasn’t delivered on all the wonderful things they promised at interview, the panel members may find themselves wondering what happened to candidates B and C.

There is no escaping personal preference in the hiring process

Since the modern academic has to be a superhuman researcher-cum-teacher-cum-administrator-cum-fundraiser, it is often difficult to quantify with precise objectivity candidates’ relative suitability to carry out all aspects of the job. For all the tick-boxes and lists of criteria, there is no escaping a certain element of personal preference in the hiring process, in academia as in every other sphere. Nepotism and “patronage” are unfortunately still with us — everyone knows of a job that had someone’s name on it. Hopefully some old and bizarre interview practices have now died out, at least. I shudder to recall a gruelling two-day appointment process where candidates were asked whether they wanted to go for an after-dinner walk to a local beauty spot. Keen to appear fresh the next morning, most declined. The Professor was presumably only joking when he remarked that our decision might determine the outcome, although the pair who went on the walk did ultimately get the two available jobs.

To understand how the system works, imagine, if you will, a friendship group of six young academics in the same discipline — the brightest minds of their generation — who finish prestigious postdoctoral positions and emerge on to the job market at the same time. Since jobs are few and far between (perhaps fewer than six posts will be advertised in the whole country that year), not everyone can be a winner. One decides to leave academia altogether and use their skills in some other, better remunerated, line of work. Another receives a string of rejections and finds themselves cast out of academia, resentful and adrift. One hops over the Atlantic to an Ivy League university, two secure jobs in Russell-Group universities, and the last takes a job in a post-92. Since none has had much chance to prove themselves yet, it is all largely pot luck, but what happens now will have profound consequences further down the line.

Flash forward twenty years and what has happened to the three people who stayed in British academia? Let’s say one of them, single and free to relocate wherever, moved around quickly and is now in a plum position at Oxbridge. The other two stayed where they were — a redbrick and a post-92 respectively — grateful to have a post in a turbulent and shrinking job market, but now in a position where family ties would make a geographical move impossible. If we compare their research profiles and teaching skills, these three people may look very similar — indeed, the person “stuck” at the post-92 might even be excelling. It just so happens that the initial roll of the dice sent them down a different path.

Unfortunately, the post-92 sector is now in grave financial trouble, with a spate of institutions in quick succession announcing the need to make drastic cuts and either offering voluntary severance packages or inflicting compulsory redundancies on their staff. In my own city alone, there are 48 academics currently “at risk”, many of them senior and with fantastic lists of publications. We all know that academic life is precarious for those on the first rung of the ladder — that’s a whole other story — but it is becoming increasingly so for those who have slowly and painstakingly climbed their way up. An awful lot of talent and experience is about to go to waste.

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