High Academic Costs: A broader issue of social justice

We need to recognise how bad it is that high costs are keeping people out of academia.

It’s true that there are a lot more people wanting academic jobs in philosophy than there are academic jobs in philosophy. My saying that is almost a joke – it’s something we all know, and something we’re always reminded of. Something that a student will hear from a dozen different voices around the room if they express a desire to go into academia – to give us “realistic” expectations, perhaps.

But that doesn’t mean that we should accept – or resign ourselves to – certain factors which prevent people from pursuing academic jobs. The problem of the job market isn’t going to be solved by making academic jobs less appealing, or by making them out of the reach of certain classes of people.

And that last bit is really the brunt of the worry. It’s not that the high costs of academia will just prevent a random cross-section of people from getting jobs – but that these costs will disproportionately affect exactly the kinds of people who academic philosophy is already struggling to represent.

It will disproportionately affect women, who tend to bear extra costs when needing to relocate, travel, etc. It will disproportionately affect people from working class backgrounds who don’t have financial stability to back themselves up. It will disproportionately affect differently-abled people who are already bearing ridiculously high costs to be able to do what most of us take for granted. And there are more ways than I can list from first-hand experience, and ways in which people at the intersections of these groups will be uniquely affected too.

I’ve been fortunate enough to get my first academic job after my PhD, and it’s really highlighted to me how high the financial barriers are, even at this stage of an academic life. About a year ago I had this naïve idea that the financial problems are only problems while you’re still a student, that the only hurdles still facing me were those of actually being offered a job, rather than whether I'd be able to bear the costs of accepting it. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be literally impossible to take a job because of money – particularly as someone who didn’t have children or other dependants (other than a cat) to relocate with me.

My teaching job was in another country. There were costs of flying there, looking for a place to live, paying deposits, paying rent. I didn’t get my first round of pay for over a month because I needed a bank account in my new country, and something that was very difficult to get because didn’t have the equivalent of an National Insurance number for the country I was in. That, too, was difficult to get unless I already had an address in that country, proof of employment, etc. I’d get paid eventually, but ever week it took to sort this out was another expensive week of having to get by. I simply wouldn't have been able to do any of this without a good support network, with friends in the right places and at the right time.

I didn’t exactly have any savings after finishing my PhD – I literally wouldn’t have been able to take the job I was offered if it weren’t for some fortunate coincidences and the generosity of my friends and soon-to-be colleagues.

There was a time after I had just moved in to my new place and I flew in to the city on a Sunday. Carrying as many of my belongings as I could to move into my new place (and as many as I could afford to take on the flight), I managed to leave my purse on the bus that took me from the airport to the city centre. I realised just as the bus drove off – and it dawned on me that I was stranded. The purse had my UK bank card in it and all of my cash, and I didn’t have a bank account in the country I was in, or any way to access money. I lived too far away from the city centre to walk (again, because of costs). The friend in the country who had helped me move was back in the UK for now.

Thankfully, again, other people saved the day. Slumped on a bench with all my belongings, I had enough charge on my phone to email one of my colleagues. She hurried over to find me, she lent me money, she took me out for dinner – she even carried my bags for me! I'm grateful to her even now.

I’m painfully aware of the lucky set of circumstances that led to me being able to take the job and get by at my new institution. Not just the luck of getting the job in the first place – but the luck of having more stable friends and support, when I just wouldn’t have been able to afford to move otherwise.

And the costs don't end there. My department is generously funding some travel for me, but I’m still paying for some conferences out of my own pocket, and eating supermarket noodles for a month to be able to afford them. And the money I do get back for conferences is reimbursed – so I have to have the money to pay for them first, and then claim them back.

These are just my own struggles that I’ve had over one year – and nothing like the costs that will have faced others.

One thing I’m sure of is that we need to recognise the relationship between financial burdens and the problems attracting members of under-represented groups to academic philosophy. We can’t continue to think that they’re two unrelated problems.

So if we're serious about doing what we can to make academia a better place for members of under-represented groups, we need treat this seriously as a broader social justice issue. One suggestion is to get involved where we can in union matters and pay disputes. We can also try to support alternative models of payment other than reimbursements. And we can take this into account when we're organising events and conferences - reduce the costs as much as we can, offer bursaries and discounts where we can. These are small steps, but important ones.

Lizzy Ventham is about to graduate after completing her PhD at Southampton University. She is currently a Teaching Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. Follow her on Twitter here. Her pronouns are she/her.

You may also be interested in looking at our conference inclusivity guidelines here. Lizzy has also written about lifting barriers to philosophy here.

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