Losing your fixed-term post never gets any easier

Belated moves to mitigate precarity are welcome but may come too late for one scholar exhausted by insecurity

March 15, 2023
A person walks on cracking ice, symbolising precarity
Source: iStock

“Daddy, why are you losing your job?” my 6-year-old son recently asked me. I had explained to him that, like a Premier League footballer, my contract was coming to an end and so I’d be moving to a new club. But, in the artless way of children, he saw through my analogy when I admitted that I didn’t know which club that would be.

I am currently employed as a researcher on an externally funded project at a Russell Group university, but the project is drawing to a close and I have just received my notice of termination. My contract will not be extended, I was told, due to a lack of ongoing funding.

I’ve been in this situation a few times before, having held various fixed-term teaching and research posts, but it never gets any easier.

It is no secret that universities in the UK, and across the globe, have become increasingly dependent on precariously employed academics to deliver many of their core research and teaching functions in the past decade. A 2016 report by the University and College Union found that 54 per cent of UK academic staff and 49 per cent of teaching staff were on insecure contracts. A more recent analysis based on Higher Education Statistics Agency data indicated a slight growth in academic staff employed on zero-hours and fixed-term contracts between 2020-21 and 2021-22.

While universities have benefited from the skills and flexibility of precariously employed staff, this has come at a high cost to those individuals. The chronic insecurity of academic staff may also prove costly to the UK’s research base: a recent parliamentary report commented that it was worsening the UK’s skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

While compulsory redundancies of permanent academic staff are, thankfully, still relatively rare, other budget-saving measures introduced to mitigate external shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic and rising energy costs have had a significant impact on the careers of the precariously employed. The non-renewal of teaching contracts, reduction of budgets for casual sessional teaching, the suspension of internal research fellowships schemes and hiring freezes all disproportionately affect those without permanent academic employment. 

This uncertain situation is exacerbated by the job market. In my subject, it is very flat, with very few permanent or temporary jobs currently advertised, let alone in my particular field (although more may come on stream in spring). With a small number of posts and an over-supply of candidates, many with formidable CVs that would have secured them a permanent job long ago in a system that wasn’t completely broken, competition is ferocious. Universities and recruitment panels benefit from taking their pick of high-quality applicants, often numbering in their hundreds. To those at the sharp end of it, however, the job market is just a further source of anxiety.

Another route to employment is to develop grant proposals to, in effect, create a job for oneself on a research project. This is something I have done with success in the past, including in my current position, for whose funding I co-wrote the application. But the odds of securing funding remain long. Success rates at the UK's Arts and Humanities and Economic and Social research councils were 26 and 19 per cent, respectively, in 2020-21. Furthermore, without a permanent contract, it can be difficult to apply for research grants in your own right, especially if you are not eligible to apply for postdoctoral fellowships.

Existing policies need a major overhaul. For example, the Researcher Development Concordat, while welcome, is about ensuring fair treatment within the existing system, rather than calling for more far-reaching reforms to improve the position of precariously employed staff or reduce the sector’s dependency on casual and fixed-term posts.

In response to pressure from UCU and a series of bad news stories, there are signs that higher education leaders and agencies are finally waking up to the problem and taking chronic precarity more seriously. As yet, however, warm words have not yet been backed up with much action. The website of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) has had little to say on the subject since its 2018 report, although it has now pledged to consult on removing involuntary zero-hours contracts following negotiations with the UCU over academics’ recent industrial action.

I will welcome any measures to mitigate and reduce precarity that arise out of the negotiations. But they may arrive too late for me. With a young family to support, it has become increasingly difficult to endure the exhausting insecurity of modern academia. As a result, like many others, I may vote with my feet and find more stable and secure employment elsewhere.

The author is an associate professor employed on a fixed-term research contract at a Russell Group university.

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