Analysis: Short term and shortchanged?

April 27, 2001

Fancy a career on a series of fixed contracts with variable pay? Try research, where casualisation reigns supreme. Cherry Canovan reports.

What sort of career could lead to a person having 54 contracts over the course of 18 years? The first thought might be of an industry renowned for seasonality and temporary work - catering, say.

But, in fact, this is the reality for British researchers.

The case above is that of Clare Goodess of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Dr Goodess joined the CRU in 1982; 54 contracts later, in February 2001, she was transferred to an "indefinite appointment", ending more than 19 years as a temporary employee.

Dr Goodess explained how the situation arose. "I had been working on externally funded research contracts, and every time a particular contract came to an end so did my employment contract. Then it was a matter of waiting until the next contract came in."

It is a depressingly familiar story that illustrates a sharp decline in the prospects associated with pursuing an academic career. Where once a PhD would routinely be followed by an academic post with tenure, literally a job for life, a doctorate is now likely to end in a string of short-term contracts, possibly chasing jobs around the country - academic pinball.

Tenure was abolished in the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s the position of academic staff became progressively less secure. In the graph, the Higher Education Statistics Agency employment data shows the percentage of permanent staff progressively falling through the mid-1990s, matched by an increase in the proportion of fixed-term staff.

New lecturers face the prospect of a series of short contracts, maybe of a few months apiece, and possibly with different pay for each one even if they are in the same department.

For those who have married within the profession, finding jobs in the same city may be nigh-on impossible, and only a temporary situation if it is achieved. One graduate recalls a favourite lecturer whose contract ended and was forced to take a position on the south coast while his wife stayed in the Northeast.

Dr Goodess, who said that most staff in her unit are not on permanent contracts, knows the downside of such employment practices.

"It certainly affects morale," she said. "You tend to be excluded from some of the decision-making structures in the university. You do very much feel like a second-class employee. You also have to spend a lot of time writing proposals and trying to bring in more money.

"It gets hard, particularly as you get older and more expensive, trying to cover your own salary."

The practical considerations of everyday life can also be problematic. "Some people have real problems in getting a mortgage."

One issue raised by Dr Goodess is that women seem to be disproportionately affected by the trend towards casualisation of academic staff (see table).

She said: "For women with children it can be particularly difficult trying to exist on contract work, and for some women it has been difficult to get maternity leave, although things are slowly improving."

Having to move around the country following contract jobs can be particularly hard on those with families, she added.

At lecturers' union Natfhe, general secretary Paul Mackney argues that universities lose out on many fronts by casualising staff. He claims that the higher education sector is one of the most casualised industries in the United Kingdom, second only to catering.

Mr Mackney is scathing about the situation. "There is a tendency for higher education employment practices to reflect the public school fagging system. People are expected to act for very poor pay for a number of years in the hope that eventually they might get to be a professor."

Students are losing out, he said. "If the majority of teaching is done by people who are employed by the teaching hour, there is no one available to assist students out of class," he said.

National Union of Students president Owain James agreed: "The increasing trend to employ lecturers on a part-time and temporary basis undoubtedly leads to the lowering of teaching quality as well as demoralisation in the workforce due to job insecurity and poor pay and conditions.

"Students are now made to pay fees as though they are consumers of education. Yet, at the same time, universities and colleges are offering a lesser service, contradicting the notion of customer care that students and their parents are coming to expect."

There is also a detrimental effect on the permanent colleagues of contract staff.

Mr Mackney said: "If you are working in a team of ten full-time lecturers, then duties such as admissions, administration and returning bids are done by ten people who teach but are also available for the rest of the time.

"If the situation is casualised so that half the teaching is done by contract staff, they will not be available for the other duties. These will then fall disproportionately on those who remain."

Another group, perhaps the most casually employed of all, are doctoral students who teach while doing their PhDs. Often graduate students are grateful to be given a way of making some money while gaining useful experience, but they may be being exploited, some have said.

Alex Nunn, a postgraduate student in the University of Manchester's department of government, said that one of the problems encountered is that rates of pay are not standardised. "There are quite large pay differentials between departments and institutions," he said.

He is also concerned that postgraduates who teach are frequently not on contracts and are not paid for preparation time. "Postgraduates are often paid through expenses," he said. "If that went through personnel, the costs would rise quite rapidly.

"Often people are not given access to any resources," he added. "For example, they will be expected to provide photocopies but will have to pay for them out of their own money."

He said postgraduates should not feel that the university was doing them a favour by giving them paid work, but should realise that they provide an important service and deserve to be paid properly for it.

Mr Mackney agreed, and said: "If you are a PhD student, you will be very pleased if you can get work. But that does not mean that you are being treated equally."

And an excessive reliance on untrained staff may be damaging for students. "Untrained teachers tend not to be very student-centred," he said, adding that this is an unexamined cause of high student dropout rates.

Institutions have made an effort in recent years to limit the casualisation of academic staff, for example by the implementation of a concordat on the career management of research staff. But many heads of universities believe contract and casual staff still have a big role to play.

Among those cited by the Association of University Teachers as having succeeded in lowering their proportion of fixed-term academic staff is City University. The union says that between 1994-95 and 1998-99, the proportion of fixed-term staff at City fell from 42.5 per cent to 28.9 per cent.

David Rhind, City's vice-chancellor, believes casual staff have an important part to play in universities.

He said: "Our business school has 70 to 80 full-time staff, but about 200 people come in to give lectures from the City.

"It is important to keep the balance right - you can't have courses being taught wholly by people from outside, you have got to be careful about the experience of the students and the quality of the course. But our relationship with the City of London means we have the advantage of world-class people coming in."

Professor Rhind expects the face of academic employment to change in coming years. "A bigger question is what the nature of employment in universities is going to be in the future," he said.

"You could argue that over the next five to ten years the nature of work in the university environment is going to change quite a lot, whether by the use of people who work on a portfolio or a part-time basis. Different people will want different forms of contracts," he added.

University of Greenwich vice-chancellor Rick Trainor believes his institution has a comparatively low proportion of casual teaching staff.

He said: "Casualisation is a problem that derives from the long-term funding environment and the insecurity of year-by-year funding allocation, which encourages expedience." But, he said: "If the funding gap closes, one would hope the amount of casualisation would go down."

Professor Trainor added that for some people short-term employment could be benign. "If short-term work is a stage in somebody's career, it can be a useful kind of apprenticeship."

He cited the example of postgraduate students supervising laboratory sessions: "We are now training for that. The institution gains by getting bright, keen teachers with knowledge really fresh in their minds, and it is good for the career development of teachers themselves."

And jobs available because of casualisation may appeal to people who do not want to follow a traditional academic career path.

"Some people only want part-time employment and some don't want to be committed to a long-term post," Professor Trainor said.

The next milestone in the debate is swiftly approaching as the government prepares to implement European fixed-term workers regulations.

But Mr Mackney is sceptical about what effect it will have. He cited the government's "grudging enactment" of part-time workers rules, and said that they have not removed the problems. Natfhe will be submitting its arguments to the Department of Trade and Industry, but he said he expects the outcome to be "a minimalist enactment of European law".

Legislation on the matter is due to be brought in this summer. But a government that has worked hard to position itself as business-friendly and is under attack for the reams of red tape it has wound around industry is unlikely to opt for a strong-arm position on fixed-term workers.

Short-term contracts and hourly paid work will always be a feature of academic life, it seems, and it may be that it fits well with the careers of a growing cohort of portfolio workers. But for many academics, it means that the future will continue to be full of uncertainty.


The hourly paid lecturer

Andy Bell graduated from the University of Westminster in 1994 with a degree in film and television. Since then he has worked as a TV cameraman for companies including southern broadcaster Meridian and has also taught various courses, mainly covering practical TV production, at Westminster.

Mr Bell has found great pleasure through combining teaching with his main profession. "As much as I taught other people, I re-learnt things myself," he said. When one of the courses he was involved in achieved an exceptionally high industry employment rate for its graduates, it made him proud. "It's a great feeling - that's saying to me that we are doing the right thing."

But it was not a perfect situation. Because only the hours of actual contact time are paid, any preparation or updating of courses is an unpaid extra.

"People who wanted to keep abreast of what was going on constantly improved their courses and put in a lot of extra work. That was unpaid - you do it for the people you are training. The problem is, it doesn't pay the rent," he said.

Mr Bell has now decided to refocus his time towards his TV work. "I would like to strike a balance between teaching and work outside that area. Enjoyment is one of the factors, but there are many others."

The fixed-term contract lecturer

Jane Ardley teaches politics in the School of Politics, International Relations and the Environment at Keele University. She did both her undergraduate degree and her PhD at Keele and specialises in Asian politics, particularly contemporary Tibetan politics.

After working on an hourly paid basis during and after her PhD, she was appointed to a full-time position last June for ten months. She has recently been told that this will be extended for seven months more, but at a reduced salary.

Dr Ardley's position illustrates the funding problems facing many departments. "They can't afford to pay me what they are paying me at the moment, mainly because my position now is covering the work of a colleague who is on research leave funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. But the money is not going to be there next semester," she said.

And although she feels a strong loyalty to the department, the uncertainty of her position is causing some doubts. "Over the past year, I have been thinking very seriously about a long-term career in academia," she said. "I'm unsure how long I want to go on on this basis."

But, she added, she did not expect that things would be any different when she embarked on her PhD. "Some people do a PhD expecting to get a long-term career out of it, but I never did."

Dr Ardley believes the issue is one for government. "It is a question of government funding," she said. "If there was more funding for departments, they would be able to give better guarantees to the people they are employing."

The postgraduate student

Emily Baldock graduated from Durham in 1995 with a degree in law, then did a masters degree at the University of London. She worked for a year on a government project re-drafting tax laws, then went on to a two-year teaching post at St John's College, Oxford. Now studying for a doctorate at Wolfson College, Oxford, she teaches to help make ends meet.

"My first job was lecturing part time in a private law college on Saturdays," Ms Baldock said. "After that I spent two years at St John's on a stipendiary lectureship, a full-time post with 12 hours teaching a week. In my subject you get quite a lot of one or two-year lectureships because Oxford and Cambridge are generous with sabbaticals.

"Law has a high turnover of staff because a lot of young people leave to become solicitors or barristers."

Ms Baldock is teaching six hours a week on a one-term lectureship with Trinity College, which, she says, is being "really generous".

She said: "Doctoral students want to teach to get experience, but they can be exploited. It is difficult to prepare teaching material and do research at the same time. Lots of people never manage to get their doctorates - they drag on and on." But, thanks to her teaching experience, Ms Baldock is finding her workload manageable.

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