University careers increasingly marked by ‘precariousness and uncertainty’, scholars hear

Even academics in ‘safe’ positions are feeling insecure

December 1, 2015
Olivia Vivian on balance beam, Commonwealth Games, 2014
Source: Corbis
Flexibility a must: priorities harder to balance for increasingly casualised workforce

A researcher has explored some of the consequences of academic careers increasingly characterized by…precariousness and uncertainty”.

Barbara Read, reader in education at the University of Glasgow, was speaking on “Gender, Work and Precarity in Academia” at the University of Roehampton on 25 November.

“Even in the richest countries of the Global North,” she argued in her presentation, “there has been a notable increase in the ‘casualization’ of labour within academia. This has badly affected support and administrative staff, and there has also been a steady rise in the number of fixed-term, insecure and ‘flexible’ job positions for academic staff in the sector as well.” 

These trends have had a particularly strong impact on women, who are less likely than men to be on permanent or standard “teaching and research” contracts, and to be those “often optimistically labelled ‘early career’ researchers”. 

To illustrate what this has meant for individuals, Dr Read drew on research she carried out with Carole Leathwood, professor of education at London Metropolitan University, where they interviewed some 70 academics in their field about precarity and casualisation.

“Carlson”, a lecturer at a post-92 institution, described how staff who are less experienced or less research-active feel “increasingly vulnerable” and “deal with this pressure by displaying more conspicuously in meetings and emails their efforts with regard to teaching and student-support initiatives – it’s almost as if they feel the need to assert more publicly their value in a climate that is now so focused on publications and income generation”.

“Faye”, a research fellow at a Russell Group university who was also interviewed for the research project, experienced difficulties in “balancing priorities” and developing a “degree of specialism that leads to really high-quality publication”.

Yet although Faye had “a clear sense that her predicament arises from the conditions of her work”, noted Dr Read, she also revealed “a strong element of ‘internalisation’ of failure – that it’s partly her inability to sufficiently ‘balance her priorities’ that is leading her to ‘fail’ in producing ‘really high-quality publications’…and that she herself is not able to reach these standards”.

Although she acknowledged that there are “different ‘levels’ of precarity in academia”, Dr Read concluded by stressing that “even those who could be described as occupying the ‘safe’ central ground of this volatile landscape describe the stresses and pressures of keeping themselves secure, and the continued feeling that their status will slip”.

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Print headline: Scholarship in precarious times

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