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The research precariat (Tseen Khoo)

Dr Tseen Khoo is based at La Trobe University and co-runs the Research Whisperer blog.

Did you know that about 85% of research staff in Australian universities are employed on fixed-term contracts?
Professor Glenda Strachan and Dr Kaye Broadbent (both from Griffith University) wrote to The Australian Higher Education section recently (“Short contracts undermine research effort”), citing this statistic from the 2011 Work and Careers in Australian Universities survey.
Strachan and Broadbent pointed to the longer-term consequences of such a workforce for an institution’s research, and the fact that these staff may leave the sector altogether in their search for more secure employment.

The dependency of large cohorts of researchers on the soft money of grants means that – for many – their contracts are in limbo from year to year (at times, even from semester to semester). The attendant stress that is generated from this applies across whole teams, not just for the individuals concerned. The detrimental consequences for the research itself is an element that is not often discussed except in general terms.

What gets presented in the next grant documents are narratives of how the work has had consistent attention and momentum, and how well supported the project is by the host institutions. Unless it’s a fellowship application, rarely do you see justification for research project staff along the lines of securing those who have the most project-specific knowledge and expertise.

The human and intellectual cost of this process cannot be overestimated. Commenting on the Australian government’s grants funding freeze in 2012, Professor Lesley Head commented that “the ivory tower is full of people; people with partners, families, homes, lives”. The burning through of highly-trained specialists on short-term contracts can make for grim career viewing if you are looking for employment stability. This churn contributes to the forced mobility of many research staff, which has its own particular consequences (as Katie Mack has articulated in “Academic Scattering”).

It is also antithetical to what an academic career requires these days:

• Producing consistent and prolific publication outcomes.
Being able to research and write in a steady way when there is a constant threat of unemployment is challenging, to say the least. Throw into the mix the fact that the next academic research job will probably be at another institution (or city, or country), and the degree of difficulty increases.  As many fixed-term academics have commented to me (and as I know from experience), people start looking for the next job six months before the end of the current one.

• Establishing a track-record in postgraduate supervision.
Having credentials in postgraduate supervision, as demonstrated by students completing their degrees with you, is often a component of academic hiring, not to mention promotion. When you’re not at an institution long enough to see a PhD student through (at least 3-4 years), how do you ever get this supervision track-record started? Sure, you can be a secondary supervisor, and possibly stay on as such when you change universities, but this is a difficult (thankless?) model to sustain. Primary supervisors have their students change with institutions with them regularly, but students rarely change unis for a secondary.

• Winning grant money (in your own right).
You could be a part of a research team for years but never appear on any of the grant-winning applications. It’s hard enough for those in continuing positions to secure a big grant. For those in the precariat, compiling research-intensive applications from serial (or multiple) fixed-term positions can be especially difficult. This is because of the track-record issue (as noted in the first point), and also because finding the time and resources to develop your own project to a competitive stage is a big ask up front.

The established grants environment in Australia, which seems to assume that a project’s contracted researchers are dispensable – or will stick around – until the next cache of funding comes in, is breathtaking in its short-sightedness. It’s a system disconnected from the wellbeing and security of the nation’s research human resources. Australia is not alone in this, of course.

One insidious consequence of the Australian Research Council’s new element in the project selection criteria of ‘value for money’ that I’ve been told about (see most recent ARC Discovery Funding Rules, p.22) is that some Chief Investigators are being advised to budget for research assistants or associates on fewer than 12-month contracts. The attendant reasoning is that the project wouldn’t be employing someone from Day 1, so budgeting for someone from Day 1 doesn’t make sense. In addition, not having staff on full year fixed-term (or even 2-3 years straight) means paying significantly less in terms of staff on-costs.* What this means, however, is that the project – if funded – would put on the equivalent of a ‘sessional’ researcher.

Good research leaders want to keep good staff. The fact that the current funding systems – and university priorities – do not align with job security for most of a university’s research staff is a situation that is long-standing and not often discussed. There are cyclic debates about having longer-term grants, with occasional success (e.g. the ARC Discovery grants, which were three years, have just moved back to being ‘up to five years’), but this is not the norm.

Unless you have a secure academic position, sustaining a research-only career can cost a lot more than many are willing to pay. The biggest loser in all of this is Australian academic sector.

* On-costs: These costs are in addition to the staff member’s basic salary, and can cover items including as superannuation, a range of leave provisions, and payroll tax.





About Karina

Living and working in the Sydney, Australia suburbs.


One thought on “The research precariat (Tseen Khoo)

  1. Put into this mix the fact that universities often have HR policies requiring all positions for more than 12 months must be advertised externally, and go through the whole recruitment process, engenders no staff loyalty either. These policies are somewhat ambiguous, tho’ – know of colleagues working as researchers who have been on contract roll-overs for years without having had their jobs advertised.

    Posted by Mandalay | April 14, 2014, 3:18 pm

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