The academic precariat deserves better

In the seven years since Claire Smith finished her PhD in modern languages in the UK, she has won four prizes, published two books and secured a prestigious fellowship that drew 900 applicants for 40 places.

What she hasn’t got is a job. She has worked a nine-month contract, a two-year contract, a three-year contract and another nine-month contract. For the last one, which was far from home, she would leave at 5am to start teaching at 10am, then stay in a cheap B&B or sofa-surf for three days a week. Now, having just had a baby, she doesn’t know when — or if — the next contract will come along. (She asked for a pseudonym for fear of damaging her prospects.)

In the public imagination, academia is synonymous with secure, even life-long, jobs. But in a number of countries, universities are perfect microcosms of what economists call dualised labour markets. Secure insiders work alongside a periphery of insecure outsiders who are jostling desperately to get in.

Official data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency show that about a third of academic staff were on fixed-term contracts last year. A survey by the University and College Union found 97 per cent of members on fixed-term contracts would prefer a permanent post. In January, the Wellcome Trust (a major research funder in the UK) published a survey of 4,000 researchers which found only 29 per cent felt secure pursuing a research career, while 78 per cent said high levels of competition had created “unkind and aggressive conditions”.

In March, the Russell Group, which represents the UK’s 24 leading universities, acknowledged that “over-reliance on some forms of employment models and associated contractual arrangements may not serve the best interests of staff . . . [and] may also impact on the wider academic mission”.

University managers say their use of insecure employment contracts is a consequence of the unpredictability of their income: stable government block grants have been replaced by a reliance on tuition fees from international students and winning research grants. Many have also splurged on capital expenditure in recent years to attract students, which has left them with debt to service. Covid-19 has only exacerbated financial pressure and uncertainty. “Everybody is in a market situation, every bit of funding is short-term. In those circumstances you just can’t overcommit to stable careers,” one vice-chancellor told me. There is also a constant supply of PhD holders who are committed to academia as their vocation.

Insiders benefit in some ways from this deep pool of outsiders. It means that academics who win big research grants can be “bought out” of their teaching obligations — outsourcing them to someone like Ms Smith for the duration of the funding so they can focus on research, which is what brings them prestige and promotion.

The number of fixed-term, part-time, teaching-only roles at Russell Group universities has increased 127 per cent since 2012/13, according to minutes of one of the group’s meetings. But people on a series of teaching-only contracts struggle to find time to do research of their own, damaging their best hope of ever securing an open-ended job.

Reform to the way grants are structured and an increase in stable long-term funding would help. The Russell Group plans to “engage with key funders” on this. But university managers also need to see that part of their role as employers is to shoulder some risk and manage it as best they can, rather than pass it reflexively on to individuals.

There is a hard-headed case for tackling the insecurity problem. High staff turnover is not the best way to attract fee-paying students, for a start. It also drives away talented academics who don’t have the “socio-economic privilege to be able to wait it out” as Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, puts it. The same goes for those who have children and can’t support the chaotic lifestyle any more.

Ms Smith and her husband delayed starting a family for four years, until they dared not wait any longer. Now, at home with a newborn, she has no idea if she will find another job in academia. She can’t travel cross-country for half the week with a baby, but they cannot justify uprooting her husband’s stable job for a short-term post. “You’re going into [parenthood] consciously knowing this might be the end of [a] career, which is so sad, because I like it, I’m good at it, I make a difference to my students, and it’s the 21st century.”

Her mother was in the military and had to leave when she had children. “There was an assumption that would no longer be the case for our generation, but — well — here we are.”


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