[Please note this offer has, in the meantime, expired]
19% proofreading discount on academic texts (Humanities and Social Sciences)
As a former academic and published author, I particularly empathize with higher education staff and students in these difficult times. Job interviews cancelled, fixed-term contracts not being renewed, archives closed…It’s a proper mess!
But the pressure to publish remains.
If you need a reliable and flexible proofreader, I am offering a 19% discount on proofreading jobs – in the fields of Humanities and Social Sciences only.
New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 4: teaching.
Covid-19. A curse, or an opportunity to change the endemic casualisation of higher education?
It’s no secret that the UK’s higher education system heavily depends on temporary staff. I’m sure you’ve all had to plough through job offers to find anything that wasn’t a ‘part-time’, ‘fixed-term’, or ‘zero hours’ contract.
A survey conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) in early 2019 estimated that “around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the [higher education] sector remain on fixed-term contracts”, whereas 37,000 teaching staff was found to be on fixed-term, hourly paid contracts (p. 3).
And these are only the official numbers: a further 71,000 – again, mostly hourly paid – teachers are apparently employed as ‘atypical academics’ but without being counted in the main staff record. UCU also estimated that “most universities rely on hourly paid staff to deliver around 25% of their undergraduate teaching” (p. 8).
What is perhaps most disconcerting is that this situation involves some of the most prestigious universities in the country: “In 2016/17 there were 71,960 atypical academics employed in UK universities, 50% of whom were employed in the ‘elite’ Russell Group of universities” (p. 7).
Needless to add that these atypical academics included many PhD students. In fact, there’s a real hunt for casual workforce in higher education, and PhD students seem to be the easiest prey, eager as they are to gain teaching experience and, hey, who knows, maybe even get a foot in the door. Money is also an issue, especially for unfunded students.
As much as I support the idea of offering students the opportunity to gain teaching experience during their PhD, most of the time it only reflects a department’s need to resolve structural problems. This is hardly good for its stability and continuity, and potentially damaging for the PhD students, who will likely find themselves struggling to complete their PhD within the set timeframe.
Universities also don’t always give PhD students proper training before they enter the classroom, which can impact on the quality of teaching, and potentially on the students’ self-esteem.
Last but not least, allowing only some PhD students within a department to teach can create hierarchies between students, with some having access to an office while others are forced to roam computer rooms and libraries in search for a study space.
This can be highly exclusionary. I didn’t teach during my PhD, and had no access to office space or staff printing services. When I once had to ask a fellow PhD student and teaching assistant for the printer/copier code (to assist a conference attendant), she snobbishly walked off to make the photocopies herself. The thought that she was worried I might make improper use of her code deeply saddened me.
Early career researchers are another easy target. I had to teach up to 5 hours per week as part of a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship. I won’t say I was exploited, but I did spend a hell lot more than 5 hours on my teaching: course design and preparation, exam supervision, oral examinations, marking, honours supervision, feedback forms – it was a lot more than I had bargained for! By way of expressing gratitude, the department eventually forgot to mention me in a list of recently departed staff, in a School Newsletter published shortly after my fellowship ended. As if I’d never been there.
If this is the status quo, then just imagine the situation now, with the Coronavirus raging across the globe. What has been a long-term problem is now exploding in everyone’s face. Permanent staff is forced to shift to online teaching or being furloughed, something that isn’t guaranteed though for casual workers on short-term or zero hours contracts.
The universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex set a sad record in this perspective, as they made staff on fixed-term contracts redundant, or simply did not renew their employment.
The crisis is also affecting young researchers, with funding schemes or job vacancies being cancelled “due to Covid 19”, for example. Fortunately not all funding bodies resort to these extreme measures: the British Academy has just published its call for BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants 2020-21, extending the latest project start date in order to provide flexibility in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is difficult to predict how this will all work out. Some universities seem to be taking on a more responsible attitude, and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has just announced that funded doctoral students who have been impacted by Covid-19 will receive an extension to their research with additional grants, to complete their studies by 31 March 2021. There are also various petitions calling for more sustained support of casual workers (here’s one from the @CoronaContract).
Obviously the emergency situation requires immediate action, which may not have a long-term impact. Still, if the academic community manages to keep the pressure on government and institutions way beyond the crisis, perhaps Covid-19 could have some positive outcomes as well.
In the meantime…maybe it would be an idea to set up a platform (a blog, a webpage) where people can post their experiences of cancelled job interviews, funding schemes, and so on. It might give a clearer indication of the vastness of the problem, and perhaps offer a starting point for a nationwide campaign against the endemic casualisation of higher education in the long run.
Second in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). Episode 2: research.
It’s that time of REF again!
Research Excellence Framework.
If you study or work in a UK higher education context then you are bound to have heard of it. And if you don’t, you will.
In short, the Research Excellence Framework is a national assessment of the quality of UK higher education research. Last undertaken in 2014, the next REF will take place in 2021. Expert panels will assess three elements for each submission: research outputs, impact and environment. These elements will form the overall quality profile of an institution. Each eligible member of staff has to submit 1 to 5 research outputs, which will mostly be publications.
I contributed to the REF of 2014, when I had only just been awarded a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in a Scottish university. My first monograph was being prepared for publication, whereas a number of journal articles and a special issue had been accepted or recently published. I remember the Head of Department – who was collecting data for the REF submission – sounding awfully pleased as I sent him details of all these publications. Too bad my “impressive” contribution to the School’s pool of outputs didn’t leave any further marks on him, given his forgetting to mention me in a list of staff members who had left, in a School Newsletter published three years later. I guess that’s the REF for you.
The REF is, in fact, quite an opportunistic business, as was its predecessor: the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). Back in 2007 I approached a British university for a doctoral project – I had recently finished an MA and was temporarily selling clothes at the weekly market of Bologna (Italy), where I had participated in an Erasmus exchange programme. Failing to win a fellowship competition in my home university, in the Netherlands, and without much hope to get into the Italian academic world, I decided to seek my fortune in the UK. Unfortunately, it was too late to apply for any funding schemes, but I was offered a fee waiver, provided that I started my PhD in July as opposed to September 2007. As I didn’t see myself selling clothes at the market for much longer, I accepted, even a bit flattered that they had offered me a fee waiver, thinking that my project must have sounded really interesting to them. Oh the naivety! It seems, in fact, that the offer of fee waiver/earlier start date allowed the Department to count me among its PhD cohort for the upcoming RAE, a strategy other departments had apparently also applied, so I discovered later on when talking to other PhD students.
So you see, it all comes down to numbers, assessments, rankings. Some institutions don’t even bother to cover this up: recently, a job vacancy was posted where a university explicitly wrote that it was seeking to recruit a postdoctoral researcher to help deliver high-quality outputs for REF 2021, in particular for impact case studies. Given that the position was fixed (one year) and part-time, and that self-motivation was among the required skills, we may deduct from this that the university was looking for someone to help organise exhibitions or write up reports on behalf of overworked staff members…And to then have the courage to write that the successful applicant could “progress” to a higher rate – on a one-year contract?!
It’s not unusual. I constantly come across one-year job postings, and they all sound pretty much the same. I understand precarious researchers feel their heart leap with joy whenever such a position opens within their discipline, or maybe at the same university where they are completing a PhD or a postdoc, but it’s usually a trap. Of course there is chance that, once you get a foot in the door, you may eventually obtain a permanent position. And it does occasionally happen for real. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t.
I recall a temporary teaching post being opened in the university where I was completing my postdoc. I decided not to apply, because I knew all my time would go into teaching, marking and admin, with no time left to do any serious research or publish articles (which counts A LOT when applying for lecturer jobs). All this for not even a year’s contract, for the job would only cover the teaching and marking period (September-May). How to keep paying your rent and bills during the summer recess apparently didn’t interest the School, a clear indicator that it had no intention whatsoever to extend the job position beyond the contract itself. In the end, the School did actually create a permanent lecturer position, the following year, but apparently the person who got the one-year teaching job – and who obviously applied for the lecturer job – wasn’t hired for that. Instead, they offered her to cover a maternity leave: better than nothing, but hardly what she had bargained for.
In sum, as the REF 2021 deadline approaches, many HE institutions will be recruiting short-term staff members to help stack their REF submissions. My advice is to refrain, if you can afford it. Early career researchers deserve respect and support, as well as long-term perspectives: job- and research-wise. You are not numbers or boxes to tick, but qualified scholars who need some level of stability and security to do their job. As important as even a nine-month job might seem for your bank account or CV, spilling energy and academic capital to then find yourself applying for new jobs – a really time-consuming part of academic life – within less than a year, well, it’s not really worth it, is it?
That said, the REF also puts much pressure on those in a permanent job, and there is a steadily rising wave of UK academics leaving permanent jobs (as this Twitter thread demonstrates). This is obviously not a result of the REF alone, but granted, it doesn’t help either. Maybe universities themselves aren’t even to blame entirely.
So what can we do about this? I would say: be more selective when applying for jobs, and most of all, believe in yourself and in your skills. You’re not a number but a person, with academic capital, and if universities want that, they need to give something back.