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Postdoctoral fellowships and the economics of promises

In a previous article in the Mail & Guardian, I wrote about problems in the postdoctoral fellow system in South African universities. The nub of this critique was that universities, the department of higher education and training (DHET) and many of the academic and policy conversations keep repeating the claim that there is a shortage of PhDs among the permanent academic staff, while at the same time overlooking the fact that they already host a few thousand postdoctoral fellows, who all have PhDs and many of whom are desperate for stable employment. Postdocs are not university employees, and are not guaranteed a job after their fellowship is finished. 

The biggest irony is how these postdoctoral positions are described as opportunities for learning, mentoring, training, apprenticeships and internships, thus presenting postdocs as essentially students who still need further professional development before they are ready for an academic career. This is ironic because the majority of academics already in permanent jobs don’t have PhDs, and many are not active researchers (Mouton et al, 2018).  

Have a look at the way some of the universities describe postdoctoral fellowships on their websites:

“Besides boosting the research output of the university, the purpose of a postdoctoral fellowship is to assist with the professional development of recent PhD graduates preparing them for an academic career.  To some extent it can be considered as a two-year academic ‘apprenticeship’ or internship… Should you take up a postdoctoral fellowship at [University A] you could expect to:

  • Develop research independence under the guidance of an academic mentor (or host);
  • Produce research outputs and so strengthen your CV;
  • Assist with some postgraduate student supervision” (University A).

“The fellowships are intended to enhance the intellectual environment at the university

and to provide opportunities in diverse fields for recent doctoral graduates to develop their

research skills and prepare them for an academic career.” (University B)

“Postdoctoral research fellows (PDRFs) are individuals who undertake research and gain professional experience for a future academic career, under the supervision and mentorship of a principal investigator…The purpose of the postdoctoral research fellowship is to provide an opportunity for experiential learning in research, which may serve as a path for further academic and professional development.” (University C).  

But something doesn’t add up here. How can postdoctoral fellows — who are already among the minority of PhD-holding academics, are required to conduct and publish their research, and sometimes supervise postgraduate students — still be considered as students, interns and apprentices? How can it make sense to say that they are being prepared for a future academic career when they already work actively as academics?  

Taxing questions

I think I found the answer to this incongruity recently by stumbling upon an article published in the M&G in 2008, reporting on a debate that was happening at the time about whether postdoc incomes should be taxed. Not surprisingly, university managers were arguing that they should not be (this keeps them nice and cheap).  But a tax expert from PriceWaterhouseCoopers was also quoted, to weigh in on the legal implications of recruiting a cohort of academics who were not going to be paying income tax.  This tax expert said that if postdoc incomes are going to remain untaxed, then “certain procedures and controls need to be in place to ensure that when a postdoctoral student receives a post-doctoral award it is to enable such a student to enhance his or her knowledge, intellect or expertise and is not for services rendered to the university”.

Why is this distinction important? It’s because the South African Income Tax Act exempts scholarships — that is, an income that specifically enables a person to study — from income tax, whereas it obviously requires income tax to be paid by people who earn a salary in exchange for work (“services rendered”). And “to study” is defined thus, according to SARS:

The words “to study” refer to the formal process whereby the person to whom the scholarship or bursary has been granted gains or enhances his or her knowledge, aptitude or expertise in the pursuit of learning. It is not a requirement that a degree, diploma or certificate be attained on completion of the course of study.

Research undertaken by a person for the benefit of another person, for example, an employer, a business or sponsor, is not regarded as “studies”. Funding of such research will not constitute a bona fide scholarship or bursary granted to enable or assist the researcher to study.

This surely explains why universities present postdoctoral fellows as learners and students, rather than as professionals. In order for it to be legal for postdocs not to pay income tax, their activities must be repackaged as “not work”, and definitely not “research undertaken for an employer”.  In reality these activities — research and supervision — are core university functions, but they must be redefined as something that postdocs do for their own benefit, to expand their own intellect and expertise, in order to minimally qualify as “scholarships”.  Otherwise, presumably the whole system would be illegal.

Putting the procedures in place

But are those measures that the tax expert recommended actually in place, 12 years later, to ensure that the research postdocs are doing is to expand their own knowledge and intellect, and are not services rendered to the university?  I don’t see any. What would such measures look like  —  and how would they even benefit postdocs?  The universities do not distinguish between research and supervision that is done by postdocs for “learning” purposes, and research and supervision that is done by employees as “work” or “services rendered”.  It is all counted, measured, and submitted to DHET for funding and ranking purposes. Moreover, what would arguably “benefit” someone with a PhD who is already doing academic work is a job, not more “studies”.

So it may be more realistic to see the construction of postdocs as “mentored trainees” and so on as more of a post-hoc justification for a legal tax technicality than as reflecting any earnest commitment on the part of the universities to raising the next generation of young academics to staff South Africa’s universities in future.  What these endless “career development” opportunities actually translate to, for postdocs who are already accomplished academics, is simply year after year of working as a precarious researcher for a fraction of what academics without PhDs are paid in academic jobs, and no surety that one will have an income from one year to the next.  

In this position it is impossible to make personal plans for the future, let alone career plans. For myself, the question that is always running through my mind is whether I should quit academia now, or keep holding out in case one of my applications for a permanent job is eventually successful. I know from years of contact with other postdocs that I am by no means alone in facing this dilemma.  From this point of view, the endless rhetoric about a postdoc being a career development opportunity sounds empty at best, or at worst deliberately misleading. 

Deprofessionalisation of academic work

This was illustrated for me when I recently attended a postdocs’ research conference. I was saddened to see research being presented by some talented and accomplished scientists who are now in their 40s and have been postdoctoral fellows for close to a decade.  They have helped to put their university on the science map internationally, and yet they still have no guarantee of a stable job ever materialising.  I couldn’t help but wonder how their postdoctoral hosts and “mentors”, and the “research managers” in their universities, have allowed the situation to get to that. 

Yet the invited speakers at that conference made a lot of enthusiastic remarks about how grateful postdocs should be for this career development opportunity, praising them/us for how much we contribute to the university’s research output annually. To me such comments came across as tenuresplaining — patronising, tone-deaf and out of touch with the ironies of postdocs’ situation.  The elephant in the room at the conference was the question of why such successful postdocs are not then being offered good academic jobs with benefits and a pension?  In my own talk at that conference, I gave a version of what I have said in this article, and was heartened to see that it rang bells for other postdocs, who said this is an important conversation that needs to be had.

The take-home message here is that postdoctoral fellowships in South Africa are deprofessionalising academic work by muddying the distinction between what is “learning” and what is “work”, and between who is a student and who is an academic.  They take skilled academics and reconstrue them as students, while promising that they are being prepared for an academic career in future. This justifies exploitation in the present and it also misleads postdocs about the likelihood of that promised career actually materialising.  

Postdoctoral fellowships are also divorcing “work” from “job” and “career” in a way that does not exist for actual employees.  In a real job, one’s “job” is both the work that one does and the employment agreement one has with one’s employer, and doing this work means that one can advance in one’s career through the promotion ladder.  For postdocs, by contrast, the work that we do is divorced from an employment agreement and from promotion possibilities — gaining experience is treated as an end in itself.  

On the web page of University A quoted above, it goes so far as to say that working is its own reward: “building your CV” is given as a benefit of doing a postdoctoral fellowship.  Like postdocs, employed academic staff also have, and use, many opportunities to build their CVs, but unlike postdocs they are in secure and well-remunerated jobs while doing so.

This perpetual deferment of the moment when a postdoc’s career actually starts resonates with concerns in the international literature about the “economics of promises” in higher education as a means of exploiting young academics. In a chapter about the shift to a precarious academic workforce in Europe, Rossella Bozzon and colleagues (2018) discuss how young and precarious academics are invited to do all sorts of unpaid or underpaid work for their university or academic seniors, with the implication that this will eventually lead to doors being opened to more secure employment. Yet, in reality, “the mechanism of promises cannot be considered a simple part of a learning process, where one is ‘learning the ropes’, because the goal here is not to prepare the new-comers for stable and paid jobs, but to replace such jobs with precarious and unpaid ones” (p. 38).  Thus, “rather than a real plan for the future, such promise feels as a soul-sourcing device, a hook meant to capture desire and transform it into a lever for exploitation” (Coin, 2017, in Bozzon et al, 2018, p. 37).  

As far as I know, we don’t have publicly available statistics that show what proportion of postdocs in South Africa actually end up getting permanent academic jobs, and after how long.  Still, many of us young academics continue to cling to hopes for academic career stability — or else, having abandoned these hopes, we are simply trapped in a cycle of temporary academic jobs, but are uncertain how to get out of academia.

Reform is not simple

 Attempting to reform the postdoctoral system in South Africa, however, will not be as simple as just lobbying for postdocs to become university employees.  There are a series of interrelated structural reasons why postdocs are here but are not already employees — reasons related to tax, to higher education funding and research incentives, to university transformation, to the way employment equity measures only count academics in permanent jobs, and to the way universities are ranked by DHET and other international rankings systems.  

So the higher education system itself is seemingly blocking the uptake of its own products, and also of the PhD-qualified academics it has managed to attract into temporary fellowships from other countries.  Also, different postdocs have different investments in the current system, and have more or less to lose if this system were to change.  Those who do not have a realistic chance of being appointed to a proper academic job would obviously have more to lose, at least in the short term, by these fellowships becoming jobs.

At any rate, discussions of the “academic pipeline” in South African higher education, and of “growing our own timber” to staff the universities in future, can no longer proceed as though the problems described in this article don’t exist.  The proliferation of temporary and casual forms of academic work is known in the international literature as the casualisation of academic labour — a phenomenon which is still not treated as urgent in universities here in any meaningful way.  

This shift has confounded the comforting idea that the academic pipeline is a straightforward transition from postgraduate student to permanently employed academic, or that temporary academic work, where it exists, is just a brief stepping stone and a learning opportunity on the path to more secure work.  For many academics, a series of temporary contracts is what their whole career now consists of.  Similarly, discussions about the purpose and value of a PhD in South Africa, and the supposed importance of increasing the rate of PhD graduations annually, cannot go ahead without actually answering the question of what the career prospects are for people who get PhDs.  Higher education debates, symposiums, conferences and roundtables which continue to ignore these deep-seated structural problems will have little interest for young (and not-so-young) academics who are already disillusioned, exploited, tired, and on the verge of quitting. 

Author

  • Philippa Kerr is a postdoctoral fellow affiliated with the psychology department at Stellenbosch University. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of Stellenbosch University or the National Research Foundation (NRF) which funds her fellowship