by H. P. Sauce
In November last year I wrote to the SCUDD list (an e-mail list for Drama and Performance academics) in order to solicit responses to a Guardian article about hourly paid and insecure academic employment.
Drawing attention to the statistic quoted in the article that ‘more than half of [teaching / research staff] – 53% – manage on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract’, and sharing some of my own experiences, I was interested in hearing what those on the list had to say, offering to collate any messages sent to me off-list in order to grant anonymity to those who wanted it.
A selection of quotes from this contact is presented below.
It is worth emphasising that a common thread of experience, that perhaps acts to enable this kind of employment, is that many of the people on these contracts come from a background of freelancing, where precarity is normalised, even if the pay is often significantly higher as a freelancer.
In my professional freelance work I would be very hesitant to accept such a low rate, and I have led workshops at a number of H.E. institutions all of which were paid at a higher hourly or service-based rate.
For freelancers, casual work in a university appeals because the monthly pay packet offers some increase in security, even though the pay is significantly less than what they’re used to, is only temporarily secure, and there is no official support for maternity / sick leave or other perks (my own experience has seen me lose a year’s work when I contacted the course director at a new place of employment to say that I was unwell and would be unable to come into work that week. By the time I had received the e-mail saying I was no longer required, I had been replaced).
Usually this work has to be supplemented by continuing to freelance, with all the accompanying logistical and emotional issues that accompany simultaneous management of multiple income streams. At least anecdotally, this would appear to be the norm for many academics on temporary contracts, at least within the arts, although further research is needed to see the proportion of academic staff that live in this way.
It’s also not ubiquitous, some casual workers come from a background of having a permanent position but felt that more flexible working arrangements might suit their situation better. With hindsight, this hope proved unfounded:
I left my permanent position after 4 years because I was expected to do my research during my holidays although in my contract research appeared to be an integral part of my position.
In those 4 years I felt not only exploited: I often felt like a commodity. And I feel it now even more as HP Lecturer. I hoped the flexibility as Visiting Tutor would make it possible to find a balance between professional career and teaching: but I was wrong. I feel that lecturers (HP lecturers like me-in particular) can be used, squeezed to their maximum capacity and replaced. Younger and less experienced tutors will work longer hours for lower fees and that’s what makes Universities’ HR department happy…
… last year I ran a Commedia dell’Arte masterclass. This year the same university called me back but this time they would have paid me as HP tutor- not as one-off masterclass: that is less than half of the year before.
Someone else also wrote of how their freelance experience contrasted with their university work:
Last semester, with a few weeks advance notice, I co-convened, lectured and taught an entire undergraduate module on an hourly Graduate Teaching Assistant rate (about £16 per hour). I offered to do the work before I knew that the pay was so low. Silly me. There was no room for negotiation.
I have been a freelancer for over a decade, yet this was the first time I ever felt exploited. I feel so stupid looking back on this. I loved the job, but I hated the way it made me feel – undervalued, exhausted, and broke. I gave that job my very best.
Another complaint raised was around the lack of career progression. From my own experience which, thanks to a very supportive course convenor, is probably better than most, there’s still no default support for research now that I have finished my PhD (I’m thinking quite low grade things like library or JSTOR access, ethics review, training around funding – to be paid to put research projects together is a far-distant fantasy…). I also have no formal opportunity to contribute to course development or take on additional (paid) responsibilities.
Another respondent writes on the gap that appears to be opening up between PhD students and those with a secure academic position:
… from my point of view I haven’t even got to the interview stage yet, and have only seen Birkbeck advertise for hourly paid lectureships in London and the South East. I am frankly appalled at the level of experience required to be even considered for a teaching role now; there is no distinction between full time, part time, and hourly paid roles in the job descriptions. I completed my PhD a year ago. I have teaching experience, I am published, I have organised research events, and I have secured small amounts of funding for my self-led research projects. None of this makes a dent.
The REF is undoubtedly impacting what qualifies as essential criteria i.e. a strong record of research. It seems to me universities have given up on nurturing early career academics and are expecting us to come fully packaged. I believe the first step in alleviating this malaise is to stop counting ourselves as lucky in securing teaching work by recognizing the value we bring to universities and to students. We aren’t lucky; we are skilled practitioners who have worked damn hard in one of the harshest economic and political climates this country has seen for generations.
A number of permanent staff did express their disgust on the list, whilst Stephen Lacey, Chair of SCUDD, also responded. Whilst emphasising that campaigning for good employment practices is first and foremost a role for the unions, he did encourage SCUDD members to get in touch to join an Academic Career Development Committee that SCUDD is setting up with TAPRA and to share any other ideas that might be useful.
It wasn’t much, but it did feel that the issue of casualization, or more specifically the lack of support for post-docs is now, at least, in some small way, on the radar for SCUDD. It will be interesting to see how this develops (if it develops at all).
When fractional work is obtained, something that many of us on casual contracts see as something of a goal, things don’t necessarily improve. Despite a claimed desire for radical politics and social justice, theatre and performance departments are often very conservative in their organisation and enforce a rigid hierarchy.
I have been teaching for nearly 15 years on this basis [on a fractional contract], and there is never any increase in work from year to year (in fact hours get cut incrementally each year). When approached for more work, convenors – all of whom I have worked with extensively over that time – say they will ‘think of you’ if someone drops out of their team. But this never happens because when someone does, it turns out they will have appointed someone they were at college with, or have worked with. I have great student evaluations and very good results, so it’s not that.
In fact, no-one, not even my ex-supervisor, has read – or is even interested in reading – my research… and this means that when it comes to applying for things like Leverhulme there is no-one to write me a reference who is familiar with my research – which is a pre-requisite for their references. I go to conferences at my own expense and make wonderful contacts but our fields are so narrow that there are apparently 80 applications for every job I go for.
I was in the office recently when a colleague, referring to someone new, referred to her as being a ‘proper’ member of staff. There is a culture of status involved here as well as everything else, and this is, for me, the final straw that really makes me feel hopeless. After 15 years, and I am still not considered a ‘proper’ member of staff.
One very valuable response came from the Queen Mary Anti-Casualisation group. They introduced me – and the rest of SCUDD– to FACE, and gave many useful pointers on what action might be taken.
A very useful guide can be found here on the FACE Wiki, but others, not necessarily affiliated to FACE, had some tips:
So, what do I need in order to be part of positive change at my institution? The suggestion of Open Forums is good, but I can’t share my views with colleagues if I can’t afford to be a student rep, nor can I afford to attend events where my views can be heard.
With regard to this particular issue, I was passed some interesting research into the various benefits that course reps receive at a number of institutions. It’s too much to list here, but should anyone be interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll happily pass it on.
Inevitably, this was a tiny selection of the voices that have a stake in this issue, and whilst the stories individually told are depressingly bleak, I do take comfort in the fact that there are many brilliant minds and a lot of energised souls looking to address this.
This is a battle that can be won, probably not quickly, and definitely not individually, but I do take hope from knowing how many smart people are working together on this.
To finish, one last quote:
Teaching should give us joy, should inspire us all the time not in rare occasions and it should reflect our experience, knowledge and the quality of our work … first of all our pay should be fair!
* It is worth noting that not all the responses I received requested anonymity. However, to avoid drawing particular attention to those who were happy to share their identity, I have decided not to share the names of the five respondents quoted here.