Precarity in academic life

Precariousness is one of the defining experiences of contemporary academic life — particularly, but not exclusively, for younger or ‘career early’ staff (a designation that can now extend for one’s entire ‘career’, given the few opportunities for development or secure employment.) Statistical data about the employment patterns of academics shows the wholesale transformation of higher education over the last decades, with the systematic casualisation of the workforce. Continuing contracts — understood in the US as tenure-track appointments — now represent only just over half of academic posts, with 38 % of all academics in higher education on fixed term contracts in 2006-7 (Court and Kinman, 2008). While, in the past, short-term contracts were largely limited to research positions and tied to specific, time-limited projects, today they also characterise teaching posts which are frequently offered on a one-year temporary basis at the bottom of the pay scale. However, even these posts constitute the ‘aristocracy of labour’ when compared to the proliferation of short-term, part-time teaching positions, contracted on an hourly paid basis, in which PhD students or new postdocs are charged with delivering mass undergraduate programmes, with little training, inadequate support and rates of pay that — when preparation and marking aretaken into account — frequently fall (de facto) below the minimum wage and make even jobs in cleaning or catering look like attractive pecuniary options. Alongside such jobs is the newly created stratum of ‘teaching fellowships’ in which, as a cost-cutting measure for University management, work once rewarded with a lectureship is repackaged for lower pay, stripped of benefits (eg pension) and any sense of obligation or responsibility to the employee, and offered purely on a term-time basis, frequently leaving teaching fellows without any source of income over the summer.

Gill, R (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge

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