Retro scales

A time to tackle disadvantage - Chris Hanretty on his recent report on career trends in PIR departments

This article was written by Chris Hanretty
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Following the recent publication of the BISA and PSA-commissioned report 'Career trajectories in UK departments of Politics and International Relations’, author Professor Chris Hanretty (Royal Holloway, University of London) gives his thoughts on the key findings. In addition you can download the full report and see our response.

This has been a difficult year for academics and for universities.

Academics get satisfaction from seeing students work through difficult concepts. It's much harder to see realisation dawn on someone's face if they are not a face, but rather a grey box in a Microsoft Teams call.

It's also much harder to run an open, international university if international students can't enter the country.

Because this year has been so difficult (and because universities have faced such pressures), some academics have left the profession. Those who remain may have qualms about recommending academia as a career. The issue of exit from the profession has become much more pressing.

When, in the autumn of last year, I approached BISA and the PSA about writing a report into careers in the academy, "exit" (whether voluntary or involuntary) was not much on my mind. I was much more concerned about initial recruitment and promotion. I was particularly concerned by how these processes might affect different groups of people differently, and specifically whether white men like me were advantaged in these processes.

Both organisations agreed to purchase data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in order to answer these questions. Over the past six months, I've been analysing that data, and trying to shed some light on career related processes, and also on where we are right now.

Some of the figures in the report are not surprising. It is not particularly surprising, for example, to learn that there are more men than women involved in teaching and research in politics and international relations, or to learn that a majority of professors are white men. These are things that most academics could have intuited from observing their own and other departments.

Yet "capacity to surprise" is not the only test of value, and it is clearly valuable to know whether the proportion of women in politics and international relations has increased over the years (it has), by how much it has increased (by around 0.8 percentage points per year), and how long on current trends it would take for the profession to have approximately equal numbers of men and women (another twelve years).

These figures are descriptive statistics. They are arrived at by counting and tabulating. There are limits to counting and tabulating, both generally and in this particular case: HESA (who own the data), require us to avoid publishing any tables which might lead to individuals being identified. This is why, for example, the report doesn't contain information on the number of male and female professors by specific ethnic categories, since this would involve very small numbers of individuals.

Instead, the report models different processes related to careers - attainment (the rank academics have at a single point in time), promotion (transitions between academic ranks), and exit (ceasing to be employed in UK higher education).

The findings of these models can be summarised briefly:

  • Controlling for contractual characteristics and year of first employment in higher education, men attain higher rank than do women, and white members of staff attain higher rank than members of staff from ethnic minorities.
  • Focusing on individuals who started in the first year of data (2012/13), there are no significant differences in promotion rates between men and women, or between white and ethnic minority members of staff, but this is a consequence of following a much smaller set of individuals who entered the profession during the period of the data, and the absence of evidence of a significant effect is not evidence of absence of a significant effect.
  • Members of staff from ethnic minorities are more likely to exit the profession, once again controlling for contractual characteristics and year of first employment in higher education.

It is this last finding which most concerns me. Across the university sector as a whole, reductions in staff numbers seem more likely than increases in staff numbers. It's incumbent on all of us - but particularly heads of departments and deans of faculty - to ensure that whether politics and international relations grows or contracts, it does so in a manner which ensures no particular group is (dis)advantaged.

Photo by Piret Ilver on Unsplash