by JESS HARRIS
With Australian universities set to lose over 21,000 staff – 7,000 of these researchers – over the next few months and job security and conditions for researchers and academics in precarious employment are incredibly unclear.
What is clear is that there is an urgent need for change. As I describe in my recent co-authored book, academics on casual and fixed-term contracts face insecure conditions that can create barriers for career progression or receiving an ongoing position. Better support for academics in precarious employment is needed at all levels; government, institutions, professional associations, and tenured university staff.
Solutions to the challenges faced by precarious academics are often individualised – like strategies for improving productivity or building networks. As around 70 per cent of university teaching and research is undertaken by academics on fixed-term and casual contracts, a system-level response is needed. More government funding for universities is required and universities need to review employment conditions to support precarious workers, whose knowledge and skills add to their quality and productivity.
However, there are small changes, like clear and consistent HR policies, being paid on time, and support in career development which can make a huge difference for those in precarious employment. As one academic puts it; “there is a paradox … [we accrue] a repertoire of skills, and a vast volume of various kinds of data, while remaining vulnerable and marginalised figures within the academy, with few opportunities for professional development and advancement.”
While security of employment is paramount, supportive relationships with employment supervisors and colleagues are also important.
Strong collegial relationships help build collective capacity for improving research and teaching and, importantly, show untenured academics their contributions are valuable and valued.
Relationships with line managers directly impact on the day-to-day lives of precarious academics in many ways. Supervisors can act as a lifeline and “insulate” researchers from some of the inequities within the institution.
Interviewees in our research overwhelmingly reported higher satisfaction with their work when they felt supported and valued as a member of a team. As such, all academics have a responsibility to promote conditions that support both the work and wellbeing of those in insecure employment.
In simple terms, this includes providing clear expectations of hours of work, recognising other responsibilities of those in their team, and, depending on the length, discussing strategies for support before the end of an employment contract. The responsibility of all academics is underscored by an article in the Higher Education Chronicle entitled ‘How to be a generous professor in precarious times’: “generosity may start with a person, but like any radical movement, it slowly builds. It unifies people, and those unified people stand together in a group that grows as the proposal goes up the ladder.”
Associate Professor Jess Harris, School of Education, University of Newcastle
With Nerida Spinna (QUT), Simon Bailey (Uni Kent) and Mhorag Goff (Uni Manchester) Harris is the author of, Making it as contract researcher: a pragmatic look at precarious work (Routledge 2020)