Precarity in HE: what you need to know about fixed term contracts

Alex* is a lecturer with a string of publications and glowing student feedback – but no permanent contract. He currently teaches courses at three different universities for an annual income of less than £10,000 a year, and earns nothing over the long summer vacation.

Higher education is now one of the most casualised sectors in the UK, according to the University and College Union (UCU). In France, a third of academic staff are employed on short term contracts. Research by the French association of scientists Sciences en marche has even found that the longer PhD holders spend working on short term contracts, the shorter those contracts become.

This means that some of the world’s most highly qualified people work in the most precarious, insecure conditions with the expectation that they will continue to produce excellent work, publish regularly, win grants, and demonstrate lasting impact.

If you are an academic on a fixed term contract you may be only too familiar with the pressure of completing a research project whose ambitious objectives fail to fit the funding or time allocated to them. Putting in many more hours than are provided for in your contract, even after it has come to an end, while urgently seeking or starting a new contract creates unfair and unhealthy levels of tension.

Fixed term contracts also lead to high staff turnover and steep competition. Without the support of a stable community of colleagues, many find themselves isolated, anxious, and struggling. The cost is high on several levels:

Professionally

It is hard to plan a coherent career trajectory when you are scrabbling for your next contract. You are less likely to be able to contribute to the wider life of your institution if you feel constantly insecure. Even your ability to attend conferences – so key to career development and yet costly in terms of time and financial commitment – can be limited when no provision is made for them in temporary contracts.

Personally

Stress and burnout are common. Close relationships come under further strain if you need to move frequently or commute long distances. Mental and physical health suffer: there are even cases of people repeatedly cancelling surgery because it coincides with finishing one contract or searching for the next.

Financially

A lack of permanent contract affects creditworthiness, making it difficult to apply for a mortgage. Many contracts end before the long summer vacation, leaving academics stranded without income. Gaps like these bring financial hardship and can affect employment rights and pension contributions, and long-term financial planning becomes very difficult. Precarity undercuts efforts to improve diversity when those without a middle class safety net are driven out by financial strain.

So what can be done to address this, and to relieve this relentless pressure? Here are nine suggestions:

  1. Join the debate. Calls for measures to address the issue of precarity in HE are growing. Add your voice and insight to the conversation.

  2. Have a plan. Think as strategically and clear-sightedly as you can now before the end-of-contract blur sets in. Will the new contract you’re considering move you closer to where you want to be, or simply delay your exit from academia? What gaps do you need to plug? What skills do you want to develop? What’s the bigger picture?

  3. Set your boundaries and stick to them. Drawing a notional but non-negotiable line in terms of how far you are willing to travel or how short term a post you will take may save you from accepting terms you later regret.

  4. Communicate clearly and in advance with those close to you. Is your partner willing to relocate for your job? Will you move for theirs? It’s worth establishing this now, however uncomfortable that conversation may be. Here’s some further food for thought on this thorny issue.

  5. Find a mentor with experience of successfully navigating career uncertainty to help guide your aspirations and actions.

  6. Create connections. Many job opportunities come to light in this way. One way to do this is to ace your use of LinkedIn and Twitter. Make the most of invitations to attend or speak at events and conferences. Do your research in advance and follow up effectively. Here’s how.

  7. Brush up your time management skills. When pressure builds it’s more important than ever to know how make the most of the time available. Check out these Global Academy Jobs guides to excellent time management, avoiding perfectionism and tackling procrastination.

  8. Get help. Increasing numbers of institutions provide support for academics coming to the end of fixed term contracts. Some, like the University of Manchester, run a redeployment register or offer extended access to email and e-resources. It’s worth finding out what’s on offer and making sure you benefit.

  9. Be primed and prepped for your next post by polishing your CV, peppering it with dynamic verbs and sought-after transferable skills, and registering with Global Academy Jobs to create your online job portfolio and get the latest academic jobs delivered direct to your inbox.  

*This name has been changed  

Further reading:

Dr Amy Birch’s guide to ‘Getting the most from your fixed term contract’  

Certain of uncertainty: how to make the most of a fixed term contract’ from the University of Manchester’s ‘Incite’ newsletter

Leiden University’s Alexandre Afonso on academic labour markets in Europe

Author

Jo Mitchell

Jo Mitchell

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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