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Illustration by Sarah Fay

Society

The Poor Academic

By Sarah Fay

£57, 904. 29. 
The above figure is the amount of money that I have invested into my future. It is money that I don’t have, nor have I ever had. It is a figure that will grow year on year until I am able to pay all of it back to the Student Loans Company in accordance to the contract I signed when I knew nothing about contracts. The total is formed of tuition fees and maintenance loans which were not enough to give me a decent standard of living and needed to be subsidised by working throughout university and financial help from my parents – a luxury that I will forever be thankful for. The figure has allowed me to complete a BA(Hons) in English Literature and History of Art and a MSc in Modern and Contemporary Art: History, Curating and Criticism. However, it has not allowed me to get a job. It is therefore probably irrational that I plan to undertake a PhD in the near future, something which I will likely need to pay for rather than be paid to do. 

But love is irrational and I love academia, even if the relationship is a toxic one. This is not to say that the prospect of increasing my debt to an even higher number doesn’t bother me, I promise you it does. However, the anxiety is somewhat numbed by the magnitude of the amount which has lost all of its tangibility. In fact, the fear and frustration is more acute for the smaller costs that you encounter within academia such as books or software. Conferences are a key example of this, they are a crucial part of academia, helping to facilitate networking and gathering the most current research into one place. They are also very expensive.

The Annual Conference held by the Association of Art History, is one that I have always wanted to attend and have never been able to afford. I am lucky this is my only barrier, unlike many who also face difficulties with care responsibilities or disability access. Nonetheless, a full cost ticket to the three-day event is £310 standard or £140 concession which is significantly better, but still considerably more than my monthly food shop. This cost does not include accommodation, transportation or food which would also need to be taken into consideration and could easily double the ticket price. I don’t advocate for making them free either, the art world already runs too heavily on volunteering and any wish for better funding is a hope that has been falling on death ears for a long time. 

Strangely a solution to this problem might have emerged from the effects of restrictions from Covid-19. The three-day live event this year is now a four-day digital event, this has allowed for the cost of tickets to drop to £225 standard and £130 concession, whilst also removing all of the external costs. It has made the conference significantly more affordable and accessible for the poor academic. 

There will be a time again when we are able to gather again for live events, but I hope that the potential of digital is not forgotten about. Live and digital can work together, allowing events to be more accessible to more people. It can also help the institutions themselves, they won’t be limited by venue capacity and can sell more tickets to those in the United Kingdom and further beyond. Fundamentally, it allows for a more varied group of academics to enter a sphere that needs more diversity and more than one kind of lived experience. 

It is needless to say that the world of academia is much more accessible for those who have the monetary background for it. The issue goes beyond the ever rising tuition fees and the woefully lacking maintenance loans and grants. It affects the quality of your life, from the quantity of food you can buy and your accommodation’s living conditions. However, if we can use technology in academia to help break down economic barriers then that needs to be seized on, even if it’s only in a small way. Your socio-economic background should not limit your academic ambitions.