Part-time lecturers on precarious work: ’I don’t make enough for rent’

The Guardian | 16 November 2016 | by Sally Weal
Saturday 7 January 2017
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Three university lecturers speak out about the professional and personal impact of casualised academic contracts

 Steve Hanson, 44, part-time lecturer in political sociology

I have a doctorate from a great university; I’ve worked on government research projects, and have more published work than many tenured staff. I have been hourly-paid for about five years now, but HR departments have been alert enough to knock me out of the system before I could rack up four years and become semi-permanent.

I’ve been working for three places at once for most of those years. You have three HR systems and three intranets and three security systems, each with their glitches and perversities.

The negotiation of all that stuff – just getting paid is far from automatic – stacks up to something like a management role. But of course this is without the security or the reward or pay being put in automatically. It’s often like trying to play Tetris very fast, and then you look at what you’re doing all this for and it’s three hours one week, seven another, none the next week.

I earn just over £6,000 a year. My pay always just reduces my benefits, which is now universal credit. It’s hard to get by. Then friends and sometimes even students say things like: “Ah, it’s all right for you being a university lecturer …”

We are seasonal labourers, like fruit pickers. You have to email every September, cap in hand, saying: ‘Is there any work for me this year?’ Universities are giving their hourly-paid people less hours, therefore paying them less.

I do struggle to get by. I live in a housing co-op. On a day-to-day basis it means getting big bags of pulses and rice from Asian supermarkets, as cheaply as possible, making a whole batch of something and living off it. I cycle everywhere. It’s absolutely no frills. I’ve got a partner. We would like a family, but it would be extremely difficult. And the idea of getting a mortgage is a non-starter.

The reason I am willing to be named here is because there is little left at stake, not much left to lose; the idea that if I be nice and polite about the situation and don’t say anything I might progress is clearly not true.

 Sam, 32, part-time lecturer in applied linguistics and communications

I obtained my PhD in 2013 from a Russell Group university. Since then I have worked in three different universities, have taught on seven different modules, and have been module leader for five of these modules.

I love working in [higher education] but, having had a succession of casualised contracts as an hourly-paid lecturer, am finding it increasingly unsustainable for both financial and personal reasons.

I am not making enough money to make rent, particularly in the summer, and have to freelance as an editor and proofreader, which eats into time I really should be using to develop my own research and publications. I am unable to make long-term plans because I don’t know where – or if – I’ll have work next year.

At the moment I face long commutes and/or sleeping on friends’ spare beds, sofas, floors or beanbags the night before I teach. There’s no point in moving closer to work because I might be working at the other end of the country in six months.

Buying a house is out of the question. I have moved back in with my parents in order to save even my meagre rent. The best time was when I was teaching two courses a semester and doing MA supervision – I was earning £6,000-8,000 a year. Sometimes it’s as low as £2,000-3,000.

Casualised contracts do not always pay you for office hours or sufficiently pay you for teaching preparation. You are rarely paid for the hours of emailing and advising students outside the days you are working. It becomes a difficult juggling act between supporting your students and paying yourself. Working as a casual? Zip your lip and do as you’re told Read more

On a personal level, I’ve experienced serious mental health issues and, while I have worked very hard at getting to a point where I can function, unstable work without a network of colleagues and without any security is proving really difficult.

Three years of temporary contracts have meant that my life has been on hold. My friends outside academia are settling down, buying houses and getting married. Meanwhile, I have a PhD, a book that’s too expensive for anyone other than a university library to buy and face constant uncertainty.

I’m worried that casualised academic labour means that the only ones who get permanent academic jobs are those able to tough out several years of fraught, unstable work – and I worry that the people able to do that are those with considerable financial privileges, without caring responsibilities, without financial dependents and those mentally resilient enough to cope.” Sam is a pseudonym.

Catherine Burgass, 49, part-time lecturer in English

“I got my PhD in 1997 in English literary theory. I worked for about six years at various universities on a series of temporary contracts. I then had my daughter and was made redundant from the last of those contracts.

I was at home for five years with my daughter, then I returned to work as a lecturer at Staffordshire University on a series of temporary contracts including full-time and part-time; my underlying permanent contract remains hourly-paid.

My life is OK because my husband earns a decent wage but I certainly could not support myself on what I earn. Plus there’s the issue of insecurity – the fact that your hours can be cut. My hours have been cut. I have been on occasion quite depressed by the situation.

I was only doing five or so hours a week last year. This semester I’m only teaching two hours a week. The hourly-paid lecturing rate includes payment for half an hour preparation and half an hour marking for each hour of face-to-face teaching. If I was preparing a course I have not taught before I would often spend a day preparing for a lecture and a seminar or a workshop.

I earn such a pathetic amount. It’s ignominious. I feel quite humiliated – the remuneration and the status of the job is much lower than it is for full-time equivalent colleagues. There’s a lack of career progression, a lack of status and not much money.

I’m in a sense lucky. I’m not on my uppers. I can work for little money, but for other people who need to support a family, I can’t imagine how they manage. Everybody is scrabbling around trying to find work.

My husband is a professor of philosophy. He is the one with the proper job. It’s not unusual, but it’s not very good on the feminist front.”

by Sally Weale

Read on The Guardian

Photo credit: Steve Hanson, who teaches political sociology, says: ‘The idea that if I be nice and polite about the situation and don’t say anything I might progress is clearly not true.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

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