During the last month, three mid-level academic friends, all accomplished Humanities types, from Netherlands and Belgium told me their stories. They are all in permanent positions at three different universities not far from their home towns, and they all have very respectable, international CVs; each publishes in leading journals and with leading presses. They are dedicated teachers (two have won teaching awards), and true scholars: they publish original, quirky research. I am always happy to read their work, which is solid and penetrating. (I consider one an academic mentor, and I am sure that one of the others could land a position in a top research department Stateside if family commitments didn't get in the way.) I know hundreds of young scholars that wish they could be them. Yet all three have experienced humiliating practices leveled at them. I think what happened to them is not local bad luck, but a feature of a general, terrible trend. It's an unsexy problem because it does not involve ordinary academic exploitation (low salaries, scant job-prospects, etc), but it is emblematic for the corrosion of academic values in local universities. I am pretty sure that this is a trend in all places where 'research' is funded via 'grants', but I am open to correction.
The situation is getting so bad, that only if you are a 'do-not-rock-the-boat-above-average-work-habits-type' and too happy to do 'me-too-research-that-looks exciting,'* you should probably avoid a career as a scholar in the Low Countries. You will avoid my friends' fate only if (a) you are lucky enough to be a grant-making star, or (b) you get lucky that your local academic technocrats resist the incentives that are thrown at them and try to maintain the sense that each permanent member of a university ought, if they are willing and capable, to contribute to research.
Two of my friends 'lost' all their 'research-time' in cost-saving measures during financial reorganizations, which is when their quasi-civil-servant-contracts can be renogotiated in artificially engineered financial crises, by their local faculties. (In one case this involved a serious pay-cut, too.) In practice, this means that their teaching load was (at least) doubled, so that they now teach community-college-style teaching loads. I'll mention the third after a brief explanation.
My three friends have something in common: all three are terrible at professional bullshitting, that is, writing grant applications. In Western Europe that is now the key skill for professional survival in the humanities and social sciences. Now, writing a grant proposal is a very useful intellectual exercise; it allows you to project a vision, and to decide what's crucial to it and what's extrinsic. It allows you to articulate how your research may hang together and what a promising research trajectory might be. Moreover, given that in the Low Countries researchers are all tax funded, it allows the government to promote social utility of research. I can honestly recommend writing a grant every few years; it creates useful touchstones to keep oneself honest.
Even so, in practice, grant writing is a skill that has only minimal connection with research quality; the key 'skill' is to 'leverage' one's CV in light of a plausible, ambitious (but not too ambitious) research narrative and then get lucky with the composition of the grant commission and the referees they use. (This luck can be steered a bit, of course.) Even if it is true that most folk that get grants are very good at research (see next paragraph for full disclosure), it does not follow that they are more worthy than those that do not. In Western Europe there is now a class of privileged researchers that have been awarded grants relatively early during their careers, and they systematically benefit from the Matthew effect if they do not screw up, that is, take the time to do genuinely original research or offend any local technocrat or powerful researcher. Given that there is never enough money to fund all the worthy research proposals, even the 'stars' need to apply over and over again in a grant-making lottery. (Given that sometimes 'objective' metrics matter, you'll note that such academics really like it if they have high impact journals controlled by academic friends and likely referees of grant proposals that understand what it means for one's research niche to operate in a zero-sum environment.)
You might be thinking, "Schliesser and his sour grapes." Well, wrong. I am very good at getting grants. I am batting around 50% with my name at the top of the proposal. I got especially lucky with a grant that landed me a five year Research Chair, which was accompanied with tenure and a major research reduction. So, don't cry for Schliesser, Argentina. (I repay my debt to society by sitting on an interdisciplinary, grant committee.) I play by the imposed rules, that is, I make sure that I have a very high publication rate (that is, I am no perfectionist), and I am constantly dreaming up research projects that may fit a grant proposal. The point is I am not a better scholar, scholar than my friends; I am really better at projecting productivity and the fine art of academic bull-shitting. (I am not a believer in epistemic humility or modesty; I really like my 'stuff,' too!)
You might be thinking, 'who needs grant money to do philosophy/Humanities research?' Well, if you don't bring in grants, then you are apparently too 'expensive' to be employed as a bread and butter teacher-researcher. (Given that local PhD students and post-docs are funded as civil servants, supervised 'research' is actually very expensive.) So, lacking a steady supply of grants, one basically becomes a play-toy for academic technocrats, who with a push of the button on their SAP spreadsheets can measure your contribution to their accounting bottom-line, to push you around. I know that's long been the norm in the 'sciences,' where labs can be really expensive, but it's utterly silly in the Humanities and Social Sciences. What we need is a high average quality of faculty (with genuine scholarly virtues), not a few fashion-driven academic rain-makers (that is grant obtainers). (Unsurprisingly, these practices also reinforce existing patterns of exclusion for folk that do not fit the new-normal template.)
Okay, I promised you the third. After a series of grant application failures, he went in for a 'talk.' The third was told informally told that he will never have a PhD grant proposal approved again because his projects are, too original and off-beat and, so, the grant agency worries that the projects may result in failure. For, the dirty secret is that while grant agencies talk of 'excellence' and 'innovation,' they really want to have something to show, 'measurable output,' for their 'investment.' These days grant proposals ask you to fill in highly detailed time-tables. (Yes, time-tables that look like they belong in a German Railroad brochure.) The very idea that, well, research might be unpredictable has no official place during a grant proposal (which is why it really involves the art of bullshitting). So, my third friend has been told he can never expect to have his own PhD students forever (even if talented young students would want to work with him, they could not be funded), and that henceforth he is at the mercy of some academic technocrat who will decide that his research is unproductive and so will take away his 'research time.'
So, predictably European universities are fast dividing between academic 'stars' -- with lots of PhD students and post-docs funded by grants -- and folk that earn decent civil servant salaries, but that are routinely told that they are not pulling their weight (and so should be burdened with more teaching and/or administration). Don't get me wrong: teaching, including at community colleges, is a noble vocation and worthy of respect and admiration. But universities are not community colleges.
At bottom my friends have been exposed to a political problem. European universities have been happy to become extensions of their Weberian, local bureaucracies. In general that means that they take on the trappings of their -- pretty efficient, reasonably well functioning, -- rule-following local bureaucracies. (There are some non-trivial differences among European bureaucracies, but I won't bore you with national stereotypes here.) Such bureaucracies are actually pretty good at overseeing the bulk of research in the applied sciences, which, in the Low Countries are key to industrial productivity and, thus, local living standards. Weberian bureaucracies are not enemies of Humanists and quirky thinkers (there is a long list of European writers and intellectuals who found their reliable pay-check in them)--but they do prefer that research is done outside 'official' hours. That is, if you are young, and really are bad at academic bull-shitting, you might as well become a civil servant and you're likely to have more time to follow your intellectual passion than go and work for a university where your spirit will be crushed and where you will be told by your Deans and Chairs that you are a loser.
*Of course, it's best if you don't know any better. So, the best way to generate researchers that think that their work is cutting edge is to have them be selected from high test-scoring cohorts and then let them do ultra-short and high publication PhD projects, so that young scholars don't have time to discover how little they know.