Why are many academics on short-term contracts for years?

The Guardian | Monday 4 February 2013 | by Anna Fazackerley
Wednesday 27 February 2013
by  antonin
1 vote

More than a third of academics are on temporary contracts as universities casualise their workforces

When Vicky Blake embarked on her PhD at Durham University eight years ago, she believed it was the beginning of an exciting research career. Now, as part of the silently growing army of teaching staff paid by the hour in British universities, she is beginning to wonder at what stage she should walk away.

"I feel I owe it to myself to try, because I’ve invested so much in this. But I am 30 years old and I can’t keep existing on a month-to-month basis," she says. "I have to put a time limit on how long I can hold out for a proper research job, and I think that’s really sad."

Blake may spend her life juggling, with no ability to plan ahead, let alone apply for a mortgage, but in some respects she is one of the fortunate ones. When she came to the end of an eight-month, part-time research assistant post at Leeds University last year, instead of letting her fall off the academic cliff, it put her on a special redeployment register. This led her to a part-time, one-year assistant post on an academic journal at the university. She has a second part-time clerical post at Leeds, a commitment-free, "zero-hours" clerical job at Durham, and an hourly paid teaching job at Leeds, for which she has to secure a new contract each term.

This "patchwork of incomes" has become a common picture for young people – and those who were young when they started out – fighting for an academic career. "You feel lucky if you score any sort of fixed-term contract," Blake says. "I’ve had a better financial situation over the past year but, if I compare my situation with someone in what frequently gets called a ’proper academic job’, I still don’t have anything like their security."

According to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), more than a third of the academic workforce is now on temporary, fixed-term contracts. Moreover, the official staffing statistics conveniently exclude the 82,000 academics employed in jobs such as hourly paid teaching, which are classed as "atypical", so the real figures look much worse.

While universities are jostling to present themselves as committed to "the student experience", following the ramping up of fees, it is teaching staff who have been hit hardest. The number of teaching-only staff on temporary contracts went up by a third between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

The University and College Union (UCU) is holding a national day of action for casual workers next month. It says that higher education has become one of the most casualised sectors in the UK – second only to the hospitality industry. Edward Bailey, who is leading the protest for the union, says: "We are seeing an increase in people who are on successive fixed-term contracts for years on end. There is a feeling that universities are calling all the shots and they should be grateful just to have a job, but these places shouldn’t be sausage factories."

Of course, if you are a vice-chancellor there is an obvious business case for having a large swathe of your employees on more flexible contracts – especially when most fear that another expensive national salary rise won’t be far away.

A former vice-chancellor says that all this might backfire as higher fees bed in and students become more demanding. "Universities now have to publish their contact hours. But contact with whom? With the stars the universities claim makes them what they are, or a part-timer? I think there is a pressure point building up here, with lawyers waiting in the wings to challenge." Blake agrees. "I work incredibly hard and have had very good feedback for my teaching. But there is definitely an interesting tension in the system because some students arrive at university expecting to be taught predominantly by senior staff with permanent positions."

Ian Jones (not his real name) tells a familiar story. "I thought I’d go through the motions of being on casual contracts for a couple of years and then I’d move up to a permanent job," he says. "I wasn’t expecting to still be here on this basis 10 years later. I teach at three institutions to try to give myself more security. I am lucky if I know what I’m doing two weeks before teaching is due to start. If you don’t get the hours, often no one rings to tell you. Once, I was notified by text message."

Jones lived with his mother for most of his twenties and early thirties, because he couldn’t be sure he would make his rent each month. "Of course, that has a certain stigma attached – I began to feel like Norman Bates. Attracting a partner was difficult," he says.

But this insecurity isn’t confined to teaching. According to Hesa, 68% of research-only staff are on fixed-term contracts, which typically last as long as the research grant.

Dr Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, explains: "The vast majority of research is conducted by apprentices, whether that be PhD or postdoc, on anything from six months to five years. People are in denial. They are taking these temporary training positions when they won’t usually lead to anything permanent."

Despite winning one of the Wellcome Trust’s coveted early-career fellowships at 45, Rohn is on a rolling three-month research contract. "My boss would do anything to keep me – he finds bits of cash under the sofa cushions – but the university isn’t employing me," she says.

Dr Eric Silverman, a researcher at Southampton University on his second fixed-term research contract since his PhD, echoes her frustration. "As far as I can work out, there are only two options: leave academia and give up the dream, or look for jobs 100% of the time," he says.

Prof Janet Metcalfe, chair of Vitae, a career development organisation, says researchers can improve their chances of success. "People naturally get passionate about a particular research area, but the message is: the more flexible you are, the more employable you are," she says.

Yet many on the ground are far from optimistic. Silverman says: "If a student asked me whether they should do a PhD, sadly, I’d say take a very careful look at the other options. When you’re young you think ’the job insecurity won’t happen to me’ – but it will."

by Anna Fazackerley

Read on The Guardian

Photo: Vicky Blake is still working as an hourly paid teacher eight years after starting her PhD. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

commentaires article









Aucun évènement à venir les 2 prochains mois

News items

New Analysis of Employment Outcomes for Ph.D.s in Canada

Thursday 5 February 2015

An analysis of where Canada’s Ph.D.-holders are employed finds that just 18.6 percent are employed as full-time university professors. The analysis from the Conference Board of Canada finds that nearly 40 percent of Ph.D.s are employed in higher education in some capacity, but many are in temporary or transitional positions. The other three-fifths are employed in diverse careers in industry, government and non-governmental organizations: “Indeed, employment in diverse, non-academic careers is the norm, not the exception, for Ph.D.s in Canada.” - Inside Higher Edu, January 8, 2015

[Sweden] New legislation to help foreign postgraduates stay on

Sunday 27 April 2014

On 1 July this year, new legislation will come into force in Sweden that includes measures which will make it considerably easier for foreign doctoral candidates and students to stay and work in the country after graduating.

An agreement between the outgoing Alliance government and the Swedish Green party will secure a majority vote for the proposal in the parliament. (...) – University World News, by Jan Petter Myklebust, 21 March 2014 Issue No:312

On the Web : Full news here

US : Dwindling tenure posts

vendredi 18 avril 2014

Tenure is dying out at US universities.

The proportion of non-tenure-track and non-tenured faculty posts continues to rise across all US institutions, finds a report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington DC. Losing Focus : The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 201314 surveyed 1,159 public and private US institutions and found that the overall proportion of assistant professors in non-tenure-track posts was 23.4 for 201314, compared with 20.8 in 201011. Dwindling tenured and tenure-track posts threaten the ability of scientists to conduct research without interference from funders or administrators, says John Curtis, the report’s lead author and director of research and public policy for the AAUP. - Nature, 508, 277, 09 April 2014

Sur le Web : Read on nature.com

Les coupes budgétaires pèsent sur la recherche académique américaine

jeudi 12 décembre 2013

Aux USA, les répercussions des coupes budgétaires fédérales pour la recherche académique sont bien visibles selon une études récentes :

  • moins de place pour les étudiants dans les labos (stages, doctorat, ...) : - 31% ;
  • moins de CDD à temps partiel : -30% ;
  • moins de postdoctorants : - 24% ;
  • moins de postes fixes dans 22% des cas.

Une recherche académique en récession aux USA...

Étudiants étrangers : la sénatrice Dominique Gillot dépose une proposition de loi visant à améliorer leurs conditions d’accueil et de séjour

vendredi 15 février 2013

« Il n’est (?) ni dans l’intérêt des pays d’origine, ni dans le nôtre, de renvoyer chez eux les étrangers dès la fin de leurs études. Au contraire, c’est après au moins une première expérience professionnelle que ces diplômés pourront, à leur retour chez eux ou à l’international, mettre à profit les compétences acquises en France et en faire la promotion. » Voilà ce qu’écrit Dominique Gillot, sénatrice (PS) du Val d’Oise, dans l’exposé des motifs de la proposition de loi relative à l’attractivité universitaire de la France qu’elle dépose mardi 12 février 2013.

« Droit illimité au séjour » pour les diplômés d’un doctorat français. Dans son article 4, la proposition de loi « crée un droit illimité au séjour en France pour tout diplômé d’un doctorat obtenu en France, à qui la carte ’compétences et talents’ est délivrée sur sa demande ». Il est précisé que « cette disposition a vocation à favoriser les échanges entre les pays d’origine et la France, permettant de développer une coopération économique continue, enrichissante, sans pillage des cerveaux des pays émergents ».

Soutenir par un don