The end of year approaches, and the implications for thousands of university staff of both short-term contract professional staff and zero hours academic precarity are sharply in focus. As someone who’s been on both of these merry-go-rounds over the past couple of years, sometimes at the same time, I have found myself in a same-same and same-different position.
The short- and longer-term implications of both are becoming much more ominous and pervasive.
Precariously and variously employed is an accurate description of my last 10 years working for universities. These years have been filled with casual academic, adjunct, limited term academic and short-term professional staff roles. As with many appointments, I fell into my current contract professional position more through luck and contacts. It provided an interesting segue from my common experience of being a casual academic, affording strange benefits such as paid sick days and annual leave that don’t exist for truly casual (academic and professional) staff irrespective of the number of hours you work, or the duration of your contract.
In the 10 years I have taught at universities in Australia and abroad, I had not taken a single sick day—out of necessity. Not turning up to teach means not getting paid. The irony here is that two-thirds of the hourly teaching rate for casual academics is designated for administrative and preparatory tasks outside of the classroom before face-to-face teaching takes place. In simple terms, you do the majority of the work and get paid for none of it. So missing class one day can mean no income for a week; two if being sick sits either side of the semester break. Eating, paying bills, and having a place to live can all be significantly impacted. In short, personal wellbeing does not factor into casual teaching (and professional staff) contracts.
The learned behaviour of not even thinking about taking time due to illness was hard to break as I transitioned into a short-term professional staff contract. So as this contract is due to expire, the majority of my sick days remain untaken.
This learned behaviour has also shaped my approach to annual leave. Being paid while not actually at work is entirely strange to me, however welcomed and beneficial. I used some of it to attend an international conference (at my own expense), seeking to make those essential connections that can lead to teaching and research opportunities. My experiences as a casual academic—living frugally and saving as much money as possible to survive the drought of paid work over the summer break—directly influenced (non)use of my remaining annual leave. I held it in reserve, hoping it could be provide a means to extend the role further, or at least to provide for other networking opportunities at research events. Having an actual holiday was largely non-considered.
So now, as this sojourn into the other side of the precarious employment at a university comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on the pros and cons of each in the short and longer term. I am an early career researcher (ECR) who is still holding on to the hope that there is an academic role out there for me. I enjoy teaching, facilitating learning and following students through the journeys of their degrees. I have a growing international profile and strong publication record with international teaching and research experience. I also have substantive experience outside of the university.
I have reached a point in my career where casual academic appointments do not add any more points to my CV. This work is economically insecure, but can provide the time necessary to further build my research profile. Compare this with a contract professional staff appointment: more (short term) economic security, that similarly adds little value to my CV, but my experience is that even though I negotiated for a less than full-time contract in order to save some writing time, it’s much harder to maintain research, or have research valued, in this role.
Within the precarity of each type of role, there are relational pros and cons. There are also much larger issues. The ability to plans one’s life is significantly impacted. Casual academic contracts that last approximately 4 months at a time or longer short-term professional appointments (three, six or twelve months) both have definitive end points. Waiting (i.e. hoping) for another contract position is incongruous.
With the rise of zero hour contracts, there is an incentive to wait. Being employed on a zero hour contract means waiting for an offer of work hours (i.e. effectively being on call) and not being paid for any of this waiting. Common across industries in the UK, according the to Office for National Statistics 583,000 people are on zero hour contracts, with a total of 1.4 million contracts with no guaranteed number of hours. Less widespread in Australia, universities have taken up the mantle across the country, mirroring the practices of labour hire companies. They list on job search sites seeking expressions of interest in casual teaching. A recent listing is titled, in Orwellian doublespeak, ‘ Casual Academic Teaching Opportunities’. Being on these lists is required for consideration for employment, yet is not an offer of actual hours.
The requirement to be always-available creates a barrier to seeking out and accepting other work because the timeframe for receiving an actual offer of work can be very short. By way of example, I have received a call at 8:30 pm in the second week of the academic session, asking if I could teach a seminar-based subject. When I indicated I was available, I was advised the first class was 8:30 am the next morning. As a counter point, if an offer of teaching work is declined, the potential for future offers diminishes.
Of course, a zero hour contract is no guarantee of work. Ironically, being offered a contract with actual hours is also no guarantee of work. Several of us have received such contracts, only to have the offer of hours subsequently withdrawn—often with similar short notice to the example above. This can mean a loss of anticipated income for five or more months. Casual contracts can also be terminated by a university at any time after session starts.
Life planning is not possible under these employment conditions. Securing housing is a challenge, and not without risk as recent examples of adjuncts living in their cars have shown. There are indications it may get even harder, with landlords in the UK openly refusing leases to people with zero hour contracts. In short, the implications of the precariousness nature of contract employment at universities is spreading beyond the campus.
There is a multiplier effect of precarity: the challenge of securing a rental lease is the precursor to an inability to secure a loan, whether for a home, or a car. The increasing debt burden placed on students, and the threat of real interest rates on this debt—in the face of the disproportionate social benefit of tertiary education—itself has implications for an ability to secure such loans. If an indebted former student falls into bankruptcy, their HECS debt remains.
I find myself on the other side of the renting an apartment challenge. I have three months left on my lease, and a potential summer break of no income to pay the rent. Whilst I have attempted to live frugally, trained by my experience of long-term employment precarity, my savings will not stretch anywhere near that far.
And here’s the final irony. I now have experience in a professional support role, and strong references. I have actively and continuously sought out other work opportunities, beyond the university sector. I have the workplace skills that PhD research programs alone do not provide. But now the PhD itself is the barrier to transition to other kinds of work. In this fraught job market, rejection letters—when I have been lucky enough to get something other than the traditionally impersonal form letter—have cited my ‘extensive’ qualifications and academic teaching experience as reasons for not being offered the position.
Is this sustainable, either for universities or the people who work in them?