The academic career of an Italian scholar affiliated in the UK: the experience of Lucia Quaglia

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Lucia Quaglia is Professor of Political Science at the University of York. Her most recent research monographs are: The European Union and Global Financial Regulation (Oxford University Press 2014) and Governing Financial Services in the European Union (2010) Routledge. Together with Kenneth Dyson she published two volumes: European Economic Governance and Policies (2010), Oxford University Press. Together with David Howarth she is the guest co-editor of the 2015 special issue of the Review of International Political Economy on ‘The Political Economy of the Sovereign Debt Crisis in the euro area’.

I was awarded a first class (110/110 cum laude) degree in Political Science by the University of Padua in 1997. During my undergraduate studies I was lucky enough to spend one year as an Erasmus student at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom (UK). It was a thrilling experience that very much broadened my academic horizons and, not less importantly, it improved my then rather weak English. The countryside in Yorkshire is beautiful (it is sometimes likened to the Tuscany of Northern England) and I fondly remember my cream teas and scones at the end of (generally rather wet) hiking trips in the birthplace of the Bröntes’ sisters.

After my undergraduate degree in Italy, I decided to do my post graduate studies in the UK and enrolled for a Masters in Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex, which had a strong programme in this field. My Masters was partly funded by a post graduate grant of the University of Padua. While completing my masters degree at Sussex, I was accepted in the doctoral programme there and I was also awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant for my doctoral studies. While working on my doctoral thesis I gained some teaching experience as seminar tutor as well as a formal qualification for teaching in higher education institutions, which is required in order to teach in British universities. I enjoyed my time in Brighton, the ‘London by the sea’ with its distinctive regency style architecture on the seaside promenade, which provided the setting for one of Jane Austin’s novel.

I completed my doctoral studies in three years. As I discovered then, and became even clearer to me later once I became a supervisor of doctoral students, a successful completion rate for doctoral studies as well as timely completion in 3 years are very important in British Universities, especially for doctoral studies funded by public granting bodies, such as the ESRC. I was awarded my DPhil (the name given to PhD at the University of Sussex and University of Oxford) with no correction and afterward I took up a one year Jean Monnet Fellowship at the Robert Schumann Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence. The time spent on the picturesque hills near Fiesole gave me time to get some good publications out. Indeed, the completion of my doctoral studies in three years while teaching part time had its toll: I ended up with no significant publications at the end of my PhD, which, on reflection, was a bit short sighted. The imperative in British academia was and is ‘Publish or Perish’. This is because every 5-6 years there is the so called Research Assessment Exercise or Research Excellence Framework (the name has changed over time) that is designed to evaluate the research performance of each university and each academic department within it, mainly (but not only) on the basis of research output (publications), fund raising, as well as general ‘research environment’.

After what was de facto a post doc at the EUI (at that time the Max Weber fellowships for doctoral studies did not exist), I took up my first full time lectureship at the University of Limerick (Ireland), followed by a permanent lectureship at the University of Bristol. Unlike in many other British universities, the university ‘precinct’ was located near the city centre and the department of politics was hosted in a characteristic Edwarding style building. I then moved back to Sussex as senior lecturer and was awarded a major start up European Research Council grant (ERC), followed by a fellowship of the Hanse Wissenschaft College in Germany. Indeed, the second main imperative in British academia is to get external research funding.

On the one hand, fund raising is becoming ever more competitive because funding for research is shrinking. On the other hand, British universities are very successful in attracting funding. For example, the vast majority of grants from the ERC (included mine) are awarded to academics working in the UK, but who are not necessarily British nationals. Recent data provided by the ERC suggest that in absolute terms the main recipients of ERC grants are of German nationality, followed by Italians working abroad (mostly in the UK n.d.r). British universities are very well organised and very professional in dealing with fund raising both at the application stage as well as once the grant is awarded. In each university there is a (at time very large) research division, and in the most research oriented departments there is a departmental research officer who assists academics in the preparation of grant applications and management of grants. Of particular importance for someone like myself not very skilled in budgeting is the preparation of the budget for each grant application, which is taken care of by the research support staff. In my case, at Sussex first and York later, I was extremely fortunate in this respect and my good track record in fund raising should be ascribed in no small measure to the research officers who collaborated with me.

In 2012 I took up a professorship (chair in political science) at the University of York, where I am currently based. I was under the age of 40, non British and female. In my opinion, if evidence is needed about the equal opportunity and meritocratic system in place in British academia, this is a clear example. British universities can also be rather flexible and accommodating for research related purposes. I am currently on research leave in Luxembourg, working on a research project funded by the Fonds Nationale de la Recherche here. I am very grateful to my department that allowed me to take up this fellowship.

So, all is bright on the other side of the channel? I would say that as far as research and fund raising is concerned, British academia provide a very dynamic (and competitive) environment. Perhaps the main shortcoming is that over the last few years university fees have substantially increased. This has had three negative effects. It has reduced access to higher education for students of less advantaged backgrounds. It has de facto transformed students into customers, which is not necessarily a good pedagogical approach. It has increased the contact hours with students, their expectations about teaching without increasing the number of people delivering that teaching, de facto substantially increasing the workload of staff members. Hence, there is increased pressure on universities and ultimately on academics to juggle teaching, administration, dissemination, and research at the same time. In the end, I suspect that the last one, research, might have partly to give way, at least in the short term.

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