The term “talent market” has always seemed vaguely obnoxious to me. Maybe it’s the extraction and objectification of “talent” as something apart from those who might have it and use it, and transformation into a product available for sale. Maybe it’s the fact that “talent” used in this way reminds me of a circus or sideshow (not without reason). Or perhaps it’s just that it’s another term like “creatives”, which is being mobilised in an increasingly pervasive rhetoric about who, or what, is most desirable in the “new” economy (what fate awaits the non-talented?).
In any case, the “talent market” certainly isn’t a “free market”, if such a thing is possible in any context. I’ve had multiple recent reminders of this fact. One example that stands out is something I mentioned in my last post, regarding the HASTAC panel I helped organise. Two of our panel members were unable to attend in person, one because of a lack of funding and the other because of problems obtaining a visa in time.
Clearly, not all scholars can be “mobile”, at least not mobile enough to participate in the “talent market”. Laws and restrictions apply differently according to one’s nationality, life history, immigration status, place of residence, access to funds, and so on. It’s not something I’ve experienced first-hand, because citizens of countries like Canada and New Zealand (where I was born and grew up) tend to have an easy ride. In fact New Zealand seems to be viewed as one of the most innocuous nations on the planet. I haven’t travelled a whole lot, but I’ve never needed a visa (only a visa waiver). Customs and immigration officers have greeted me with jokes about Marmite and sheep. They tend to look curiously at the Māori words in my passport (or uruwhenua Aotearoa) before stamping it and allowing me to go on my way; and in addition, because I have white skin and an Anglosphere accent, I have no problem being accepted at face value.
As for some of my colleagues, they have to plan to get permission for travel months in advance; they’re missing conference events (including their own scheduled presentations) in neighbouring countries because the required forms cannot be processed in time, or because of unpredictable glitches, or new and/or esoteric requirements for visas. As the gears of government bureaucracy grind away, precious professional opportunities are lost. That’s what happened to one member of our HASTAC panel, whose visa arrived after the conference had already begun – preventing her from presenting, and also from seeing friends and family in Canada.
Another side of this issue is that there are two kind of “mobility” in higher education. The preferred version involves having the resources and status to travel where you please, to take up opportunities in other places if you so desire. This means not only money but also prestige and other kinds of support (from institutions, mentors, and loved ones). It means either being single/unattached with little to worry about in terms of family, or alternately, having a family who are willing and able to be “mobile” as well. It means (potentially) being fluent in more than one language, preferably English plus another language. It also means having been able to demonstrate “merit” in the right ways. The candidates in this group are a part of the “élite” that every university wants to woo. They have won awards for their work; they represent the cream of the global scholarly crop. But obviously, they don’t make up the majority of those working in academe.
What about the other kind of mobility? The flip side of this deal is that some folks move because they have no choice: they have to take that tenure-track job no matter where it comes up, if they want tenure (or an academic career) at all. Mobility isn’t élite for everyone – not if it means moving far from home (possibly more than once) and working in precarious jobs because that’s what happens to be available, and not if it’s about feeling forced to leave your home country because there are no opportunities there at all. There are also more local versions of this phenomenon: in Ontario, for example, some academics have contract faculty positions at more than one institution, spending a disproportionate amount of time commuting from campus to campus. Yet even this requires resources of a kind that some academics won’t be able to access (such as a car, or convenient transit).
For all these reasons and undoubtedly many more, the “talent market” is clearly a deeply unequal one, and is not genuinely meritocratic; it’s a reflection, indeed an amplification, of existing inequalities. Specifically for academics, when combined with the tendency towards élite, targeted funding and emphasis on overseas recruitment of “the best”, and an increasingly stratified and fragmented academic workforce, we have to ask what the globalised (and polarised) professoriate is going to look like. If it’s going to follow the same lines as other aspects of globalisation such as so-called free trade, then I think we can do a whole lot better.