by Dr Catherine Armstrong
Reports in University Business magazine and many national newspapers this month have shown the serious impact that the recession in the UK is having on university admissions. Across the sector, applications to universities and colleges have risen by 9.7% this year. 592,312 applications were made to start courses at all levels this year. [figures from University Business issue 20, August 2009]
What does this mean for the jobseeking academic? Will there be more jobs created to teach the increased numbers of students? Or will it just change the nature of the work done by those already in jobs without creating new employment opportunities?
How do the statistics break down?
A heavy increase in the number of mature students is helping to boost the figures even further. Overseas students are also increasing in number. This has really pleased university management who argue that the increase in mature students reflects the success of the widening participation agenda but they also warn that a further increase in funding is needed to help absorb these extra students and give them the best quality student experience.
Subject by subject, the areas showing the greatest increase in applications are: journalism, nursing, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering and hospitality and tourism.
More students = more work?
Most lecturers already in post greet the news of more students in their department with trepidation because it signifies the potential of an increased workload for them.
In many institutions class sizes are significantly larger this year. Anecdotally some humanities seminar teaching is now undertaken with groups of 25 + whereas in previous years the ideal limit was 15-18. This means that lecturers have more marking to do as well as more student welfare and learning experience to manage. It also means that the student experience at university is very different. Class sizes are debated in relation to secondary schools in the UK; will this soon be the same at university level?
But surely if more students are coming to university, one might say, more income is being generated and the university can afford to hire more staff? Of course, it is never quite as simple as that. Department Heads and Deans have to maintain a delicate balancing act between increasing student numbers (which shows their department needs new staff) and keeping student numbers low enough to ensure that the student experience and workloads of current staff do not suffer.
So are there new jobs out there?
As you might expect during a recession, the university sector as a whole is undergoing considerable belt-tightening at the moment. This is true in the US as well as the UK. Consequently, hiring of new staff and even replacement staff to cover those who leave or retire is under severe pressure. Unfortunately, even the increase in student numbers in UK academia does not seem to have significantly alleviated the situation, although there are exceptions to this on a department-by-department level.
With over 2500 jobs on jobs.ac.uk at the moment, there are obviously still jobs out there for academic jobseekers. But the opportunities for new post-doctoral jobseekers especially are still very few and far between. Furthermore, with universities unsure as to what the funding arrangements will be in the post-RAE regime, we are entering a period of uncertainty as well as cost-cutting.
The increase in student numbers appears to have resulted in an increased workload for permanent staff rather than new appointments. However, some new part-time, temporary posts have been created at the last minute as many institutions find that teaching staff does not have enough hours in the day to teach all the new students.
These posts, while not ideal for everyone, at least do offer scholars at the start of their careers, or those with other time commitments, the opportunity to be involved in academia.
What can jobseekers do in times like this?
The advice is the same as always except that, during a recession, it is even more important to remain positive and focus on your career development. Maintain your presence in the job market by networking as much as possible so that if and when opportunities come up you are in the right place to take advantage of them. Also, continue to build your CV by getting as much research published and as wide a range of teaching experience as possible. And don’t give up!
Dr Catherine Armstrong is a lecturer in American History at Manchester Metropolitan University.
She has previously held positions at the University of Warwick and Oxford Brookes University.
Her first monograph 'Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century' was published by Ashgate in June 2007.
Her previous jobseeking experience means that Catherine is in a unique position to understand and offer her knowledge and experience to those developing an academic career.