Careering: Precarity & Solidarity in Higher Education

Many thanks to Dr Tom Cutterham for this report on the forum event we held on Wednesday 8th March 2017.

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It’s always been the case that the most precarious and vulnerable workers face the greatest barriers to organising their labour. In a career like academia that often seems to promote isolation, the challenge of precarity is all the greater—overshadowed as it is by competition for permanent positions. Those are the conditions faced by early career researchers (ECRs), be they graduate students, teaching fellows, research assistants, or newly-employed lecturers.

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How do those circumstances influence the teaching and research environments of the university? How can we—as institutions, individuals, and as a community—take action to overcome these barriers and transform exploitative structures? At the very least, what can ECRs share with each other, and how can we work together, to make things a little easier? Those were the questions under discussion at the first ECR forum held last week under the auspices of the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar series, and co-sponsored with the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.

Sharing their stories and ideas, early career historians at every level from MA students to new lecturers joined in the conversation. One lecturer recently hired at another Midlands university told us about the three phases that characterised the time between his PhD and first permanent job, emphasising the variety of experiences that can make up ECR life. One moment you’re unemployed and living at home, wondering if you can afford the train fare to take up a part-time job that might not pay you for months; the next you’re on a 95% teaching contract, expected to find time for your own publications while writing and teaching four new courses.

Indeed, the question of fractional contracts and their relationship to career expectations was a substantial part of our conversation. A Teaching Fellowship is supposed to be a stepping-stone to permanent academic jobs, but without paid time allocated for research and publications, such roles are hardly calibrated to develop good job candidates. Fractional contracts allow employers to fill teaching needs at minimal cost in salary—but the real costs are passed onto young academics. In turn, access to housing and transport can become a big issue, which means structural privilege comes into play too. When universities like ours pay out big bucks for some salaries, the situation for Teaching Fellows seems hard to justify.

But even where reliance on fractional teaching teaching staff is being reduced, there’s a question over who will take over their work. It seems likely part of the university’s solution lies in Postgraduate Teaching Assistants on zero-hours contracts. Graduate students who attended the forum agreed that teaching experience is valuable, and the money is useful too—but that comes with a fear that valuable research time can be sacrificed to departmental demands that are hard to turn down. They reported, too, that Birmingham’s “Worklink” system often leaves them unpaid for months at a time, increasing financial precarity and raising barriers to academic life.

These questions of pay and working time are often rendered invisible by the prevailing culture of polite silence. And so are some even more insidious problems, like the fact that non-EU citizens face draconian rules around personal mobility (like being told to report to central office whenever they leave Birmingham!) and prohibitive visa costs borne out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, we heard how the often-hidden emotional labour through which academic work is supported falls disproportionately on the female workers who already suffer structural disadvantages. Such unequal structures of surveillance and support help maintain the existing balance of power and privilege.

Working together, though, there are things we can do to improve the situation—and to fight worsening conditions. With the help of student allies, and a creative approach to publicity, Warwick University’s anti-casualisation group successfully fought off an attempt to outsource teaching to a spin-off company. Here at Birmingham, we can develop an agenda for change that both ECRs and senior colleagues can push for. That includes full-time, year-long contracts for Teaching Fellows, and perhaps representation for ECR workers on Departmental and College committees. On issues like visas and Work Link too, we’ll need the union to help us fight.

There are also ways we can help early career historians move through the phases of their career. By sharing CVs and cover letters, organising mock job interviews, and creating fairer, more transparent structures of support (perhaps including writing groups), we can build a better environment for young careers to flourish. Doing so would deepen our own professional community, too.

Creating spaces for open discussion, like this ECR forum, constitutes one small step towards building solidarity and collective initiative on the problems that face early career academics. In the next steps, we’d like to build that beyond the confines of History and Cultures, and start linking up with the rest of our university and with institutions across the West Midlands region. We have learned how difficult it is to resist the silo-effect of separate departments, colleges, and institutions. But we’ve also learned that inspiration can come from crossing those boundaries.

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