In the short term, early-career researchers could be worst affected by university cutbacks.Credit: David Cliff/NurPhoto/Getty

A survey of 200 university administrators worldwide about the effects of COVID-19 on their institution’s finances paints an uncertain future for early-career academic researchers.

The survey, conducted by the London-based publication Times Higher Education, finds that 12% of respondents are planning redundancies for faculty members and staff in the next six months, with 19% planning furloughs or compulsory paid leave, and 12% planning pay cuts.

Although 51% of respondents say that they will neither terminate fixed-term contracts nor deny their renewal, nearly one-fifth say that they will. Another 24% of respondents say that it’s too early to know.

Those who study the academic-research sector warn that cutbacks are taking place in an already-fraught job market for early-career academic researchers, who will be disproportionately affected. “Postdocs are going to pay the price,” says Tina Persson, an academic-career coach based in Stockholm.

Times Higher Education surveyed administrators from universities in the database it maintains for its annual global university rankings. Respondents are from 53 nations or territories across 6 continents. Those surveyed included university presidents, deans, rectors and others in similar positions.

Critics of the current university system say that top administrators are not necessarily going to offer a frank assessment of the prospects for the world’s universities. “If you are running a university, it’s not in your interest to tell students how things are actually going to be. You need students to come back,” says John Holmwood, a sociologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, who in 2010 opposed the move to tuition-based funding of UK university courses. “Everybody has got their fingers crossed that the engine can be restarted, but some of us think it was a bad model to begin with.”

In the survey, administrators said that scientific subjects, especially courses involving medicine and biology, are among the most difficult to teach online, although computer sciences and mathematics are among the easiest.

The survey also found that administrators think that the transition to online learning has gone smoothly and will have only a small impact on university finances.

“The academic staff of various institutions have not been equally prepared and trained to deal with the sudden change of medium of teaching,” says Roula Inglesi-Lotz, an economist at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and a member of the Global Young Academy, an international society of junior scientists. “There is a difference between well-designed and properly planned online teaching versus emergency distance learning put together in such a short time.”

International student choices

Academic administrators think that their universities will have fewer international students in the coming academic year than they had expected before the pandemic. More than three-quarters agreed or strongly agreed that their institution would be able to recruit fewer students from abroad for the coming academic year.

Although the survey focused on the effects of the pandemic on universities, it is just one of several issues that will affect their financial health. Changes to the US visa programme will also be a factor. On 22 June, the US government announced that it will stop issuing certain categories of foreign-worker visa — notably the H-1B visa for foreigners hired as university faculty members or by technology firms — until the end of the year. “It’s hard to say which is the major influence,” says Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC, which represents 500 universities worldwide, mostly in the United States and Canada. “They’re both really important and still very much in flux.”

Sometimes, the financial strain will be experienced unevenly within a country. “The COVID crisis has intensified pre-existing problems in South Africa’s higher-education system,” Inglesi-Lotz says. “The previously disadvantaged universities have encountered the problems at a higher magnitude than the ‘strong’ universities.”

Employment concerns

Most respondents who expect redundancies and furloughs at their institutions said they thought that these measures would affect 10% or less of their workforce, and that most of those would be non-academic staff.

Administrators who are planning pay cuts predict that they will be more far-reaching. One-third of those leaders said they expected more than 20% of their workforce to be affected by pay cuts.

Like many, Persson thinks that early-career researchers will be the most vulnerable to universities’ financial woes over the next few years. She says that although many PhD students will already have secured their funding, those who are reaching the end of a postdoctoral contract, fellowship or other funding scheme and who are looking for a permanent academic post are struggling.

Sociologist Emily Yen, who earned a doctorate in 2019 from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she was active in the University of California (UC) student-workers union, says that the survey misses the employment issue entirely. “In the University of California system, as well as at UCLA, there are more administrators than professors,” she notes. The UC system has 16,471 administrators and 11,535 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, according to its own statistics. “That is unsustainable.” She’d like to see fewer administrators and more job security for part-time faculty members, especially those with teaching responsibilities.

Holmwood says that in the long term, financial pressure on institutions might benefit early-career researchers. “It hits people entering the job market at first, then there is a sorting out of those at the top,” he says. With voluntary-redundancy packages on offer, the senior faculty members will go, he says. “I’m about to go. If the university recovers, it will recover with the major rejuvenation of early-career academics.”

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