The aftermath of the 2017 general election: what next for early career researchers and sociologists?

By Dr Anna Tarrant, University of Lincoln (on behalf of the convenors of the Early Career Forum)*

In this post, we consider what the recent general election results might mean for the sociological landscape and for early career researchers. Ironically, things are even more uncertain than they were before the election, as Theresa May seeks a working relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Jeremy Corbyn is also calling for Theresa May’s resignation. It is therefore unclear what implications the election is likely to have for us but, like many others, we feel strongly invested in its outcome.  Here, we reflect briefly on our responses (mainly emotional!) to Thursday night and its aftermath and what we consider to be the key areas of Higher Education where it is expected to have an impact. 

We were initially approached to write this post on Thursday just before the results broke. It was anticipated that the outcome would have ramifications not just for the general public, but also for the university sector, which is adjusting to a number of key policy changes. These include the Higher Education Bill and the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework or TEF; Brexit, and the potential withdrawal from the EU funding and regulatory bodies; curbs on freedom of movement affecting international students, and more recently, the potential abolition of tuition fees (a key Labour party manifesto).

Following some very disappointing political results in recent years (not least Brexit and the election of Donald Trump) representing a political shift to the right in the global North, we anticipated that Thursday evening could be very uncomfortable for us. What faced us was the potential for more of the same kinds of politics; politics that would entrench the deepening and deeply felt inequalities of the austerity era, a politics now pursued for ten years. It is the lived experiences of these inequalities that we have been researching, critiquing and sometimes lamenting in our research. In short, we worried we would wake up on Friday morning facing another five years of the same kinds of policy making and the same kinds of politics. 

The evening turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster. We churned through feelings of fear; excitement; anxiety; even hope (especially when the exit polls were released). We feared a Tory majority meaning continued austerity and entrenched poverty for the many; fear for what a Hard Brexit or a ‘no deal’ would mean for our family members and friends who are nurses, midwives and teachers; fear for the future of universities and the consequences of broader challenges to evidence in the new post-truth era. Suddenly hope, when at 10pm the exit polls were released and may prove to be correct; that the political tide might be shifting, and that the country was beginning to lose faith in the existing regime.

And indeed, while the result currently leaves us all in a state of political uncertainty in the meantime, and while party leaders seek to form a new government, the tides appear to be turning.  Young people turned out overwhelmingly to vote (and there is some great analysis to be done on this!) and there is no longer a mandate for the Hard Brexit that many in the university sector have been cautious would be a disaster. While there is unlikely to be any huge change to the HE Bill, there is now a strong opposition in government and one that has demonstrated their recognition of the value of higher education.

And so what for early career researchers? And for Sociology? Following the announcement of the outcome, many pundits interestingly argued that the reasons for the outcome are likely to keep PhD researchers and academics in business for years to come. And there certainly is potential to consider a range of issues around voter patterns and intentions, the youth vote, leadership styles, and the lived experiences of policy and government change. What we do hope for is recognition of the important role of research in influencing government decision-making; recognition and support for the vital role of research and education and its value for society; and perhaps even a move towards greater stability and security in an increasingly neo-liberal and ever precarious academy.

*This post was written on behalf of the Early Career Forum conveners for the British Sociological Association, by Dr Anna Tarrant who is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Lincoln. The ECR Forum co-convenors are Dr Andrea Scott-Bell (Northumbria University) and Dr Rachel Thwaites (University of Lincoln).