'I've never earned over £16,500'

November 19, 2004

It's time we gave temporary staff a break, says Sharman Kadish

The Queen braved the pouring rain to open the new Manchester University last month.

The new institution looks remarkably similar to the old one. The lot of its short-term contract academic staff certainly remains unchanged.

I am a member of this invisible army who teach, research and bring in funding. Since receiving my doctorate from Oxford University in 1987, my "career" in academe has consisted of a series of temporary and fixed-term contracts. In academic life, I have never earned more than £16,500 a year. Now, aged 45, my total contributions to the University Superannuation Scheme will yield a pension of a few hundred pounds a year.

My husband's experience is much the same. He is a research scientist who has lost count of the number of temporary contracts he has fulfilled. "My ambition," he says, "is to get a job before I retire."

I teach one day a week in a department with an expanding roll of part-timers made up of retired professors and graduate teaching assistants who have been recruited to service the ever-growing student body.

Subsisting on the fringes of university life, I have had no alternative but to fundraise to finance my research and publications.

In 1997, pre-dating my association with Manchester, my project was awarded nearly £150,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund. A true child of the Thatcher revolution in higher education, I successfully raised the required match funding and learnt a lot about business and budgets. In the process, the unpredictability of cash flow in the real world meant that I spent a year on the dole. I am painfully familiar with the plight of the "independent scholar", aka the "unemployed academic".

At Manchester during the 2004 competitive funding round, my project won more than £300,000, the largest research grant awarded in the grandly restyled School of Arts, Histories and Cultures. But because I was ineligible to apply on my own account, given my status as a temporary, part-time lecturer, the bid had to be fronted by a kindly professor. In any case, under Art and Humanities Research Board rules, members of staff cannot submit grant proposals to provide themselves with a living salary.

Full-time staff members enjoy access to research facilities and perks such as travel funds and paid vacations. But the people most in need of such support -temporary staff - are excluded.

A high proportion of contract staff are women, who are disproportionately likely to take on part-time work in order to raise a family. Yet I have had no "career break", unless one counts a three-year stint at an overseas university (on a temporary contract). The issue is not simply one of gender.

It is time that the universities, funding councils and Government woke up to this invidious state of affairs. Higher education is living off a pool of cheap but highly qualified labour. Part-time and temporary staff should be put on an equal footing in terms of both pay and conditions. "Piecework" - the practice of "buying in" courses - should be abolished, along with contracts that last less than a full academic year.

Personally, I have struck gold with a three-year fixed-term research fellowship, funded by the AHRB, at Manchester.

I should be ecstatic but, sadly, the prospect of full-time employment in British higher education no longer holds the attractions it once did - too many students and too much bureaucracy.

Yet the brave new world of the new university beckons - at least until the funding runs out.

Sharman Kadish is a part-time lecturer in Jewish Studies at Manchester University and project director of the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage.

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