Tuesday, June 18, 2024

‘Up-or-out’ culture heaps pressure on China’s junior academics

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Early career researchers in China fear promotion to more senior roles is becoming increasingly difficult, as expectations placed on them by their universities as part of “up-or-out” systems become harder and harder to reach.

Claims by a female scholar at Huaqiao University recently attracted attention on social media after she said she did not pass an assessment despite producing a 200,000-word book and now faced losing her job in the ninth month of her pregnancy. Amid the online rage, the university’s personnel office responded that it had neither received her assessment materials nor issued a notice to terminate her employment. The university also said in the statement that it would provide her with “necessary support”.

In a follow-up post, the female scholar wrote that junior academics were unlikely to meet job targets “no matter how hard they work”. She said the criteria for obtaining the position of associate professor included publishing four papers in core journals and completing a province-level research project within three years.

“The Chinese ‘up-or-out’ system is similar to the ‘publish or perish’ discourse in the West,” Michael Mu, associate professor of education futures at the University of South Australia who has explored the career dilemmas of junior academics in China, told Times Higher Education: “Different universities may have different metrics, but the measures of productivity are often specifically quantified and even written into work contracts. The difference lies in the ‘brutal honesty’ about harsh standards in China versus the ‘tactful expectation’ of academic performance in the West.”

The latest controversy came a few weeks after the suicide of an associate professor at Nanjing Forestry University, where it was reported that the scholar had to failed get his contract renewed because he did not pass an assessment. The university denied that it had an “up-or-out” policy in place and said the scholar had been downgraded to a lecturer after failing to pass a “normal” job review.

In such circumstances, it was “inevitable” that junior academics in China would abandon the ambition to enter what are known as “iron rice bowl” positions, said a Chinese PhD student at the Delft University of Technology, who asked to remain anonymous. “The ‘up-or-out’ system was introduced to re-energise the sector and some universities have been doing great with it. But it would be unreasonable for a university to expect the candidates to complete all the tasks if sufficient support and resources are not provided,” they added.

China introduced the tenure-track policy in the 1990s, as part of reforms towards modernising its higher education system. In practice, the way that some Chinese institutions use this system has raised serious questions. For example, some junior academics have to overperform to prevent being “filtered out”, while others face unfavourable outcomes if they fail, such as being transferred to non-academic positions in the logistics or security departments.

Dr Mu said several factors have contributed to this situation, including the “mass production” of PhDs exceeding the availability of academic positions, waves of academic funding cuts, and the neoliberal agenda shaping academia into a Darwinian world.

“Early career researchers enter the higher education system as academic ‘precariat’. Positioned at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, they are drawn into a ‘winners take all’ race for status,” he said.

karen.liu@timeshighereducation.com

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