Short- and fixed-term contracts: a rant about research culture

I recently heard an established academic say that they didn’t really see there was any issue with short- and fixed-term contracts, as staff in their organisation were generally redeployed.

Obviously, I have some T H O U G H T S on this.

Redeployment does not address the real problems experienced by those on STCs/FTCs.

Let’s be real for a moment. Generally speaking, the stratum of employees who are supposedly flowing seamlessly from one 6 month contract to the next 12 month contract and so on, are highly qualified, highly skilled people. Finding *employment* is not the issue here; the issue is finding steady employment in the sector for which they trained.

But the academic sector treats these people as a disposable resource. That is the “research culture problem” that the embeddedness of STCs/FTCs has created. It works for the academic institutions, because there’s an ever-ready pool of early career researchers (ECRs) and newly-minted PhDs who will move across the country for a 6 month FTC because the academic job market has devolved (definitely not evolved) to the point where they have little choice in the matter. Want to use that doctorate you spent 5 years on? Accept working conditions few other sectors could get away with.

The problem is, this is only acceptable to any person for a relatively short period of time. Many of us are prepared to accept sub-par conditions in the expectation that things will improve. In academia, that promise of improvement is growing fainter and fainter.

The preference for STCs/FTCs has, on occasion, been explained as a purposeful mechanism intended to dissuade ECRs from ‘stalling’ in their careers and becoming ‘eternal post-docs.’ This is an outrageous position to take on the issue.

Those who choose to undertake, and ultimately complete, a PhD in any discipline tend to be ambitious and motivated people who have goals they wish to pursue, and questions they want to answer. Very, very few want to be post-docs forever, because that means working on someone else’s goals and questions.

Tackling the issue of STCs and FTCs in academia would not mean a sudden army of complacent, static, post-doctoral researchers. It would give those individuals the security and stability to allow them to concentrate on progressing their careers.

The current pandemic has really underlined the extent to which anxiety about one aspect of life can affect a person’s motivation and productivity. ECRs have that anxiety and uncertainty about the future built-in to their career structure. Over the last 6 months or so, we’ve all had discussions, or read articles, where people have expressed frustration that they can’t plan ahead because they don’t know what will happen. ECRs are in that position permanently.

This is where we come back to the point I made earlier, that academia treats ECRs as disposable expertise. They aren’t considered in their true form; as whole people.

By that, I mean that an ECR isn’t just a biochemist, or a sociologist, or a statistician. They’re a person who has other aspects to their lives: family, partners, children, pets (never discount the solace brought by a pet!), or probably at least the desire to have these things. The current preference for STCs/FTCs means that all other aspects of an ECR’s life is suppressed by the job. This isn’t healthy for the ECR, but it is also becoming detrimental to academia. The two issues are linked.

The prospect of a redeployment scheme does not address the base issue of job security, because there is no guarantee. You might have been employed by one institution for a total period of a couple of years, but that period could have encompassed 4 different contracts. You can only ever plan 6 months ahead, and the last 3 months of any contract is spent thinking about how to get the next one.

If you don’t know that you’ll be employed again in the same institution in 3 months’ time, you cannot realistically create any kind of stability for yourself. You have to live in rented accommodation, because a) why would anyone buy a flat or house on the promise of 6 months employment, b) no bank will give you a mortgage if you can only reliably say you’ll be employed for the next 6 months and c) because all your contracts are short term, you may have had to move around a lot, so saving money is very difficult.

You might want children. I’m in my early 30s, I’d like to have a family. Having a child is expensive and draining, I want to make sure we are geographically and financially stable before we actually think seriously about spawning. I cannot seriously thinking about buying a house and growing a child (which takes 9 months #incaseyoudidntknow) if I am only guaranteed an income and a location for 6 months at a time.

Maybe you don’t want children, but you’d like a pet. You live in rented accommodation, and most landlords don’t allow pets. You’ve had to move around a lot, because of all the short contracts, so you don’t have a strong circle of friends in your location. You spend a lot of time alone.

There are plenty of other considerations, but this blog post is getting L O N G…

What it all amounts to is a whole generation of researchers who are anxious, lonely and depressed because their precarious job situation is putting the rest of their life on hold. There is only so long that any person is willing to put up with that, especially if they are skilled, intelligent and highly qualified. This is why academia is heading towards a crisis of expertise retention.

Basically, the established academics with tenure (or whatever passes for tenure these days) will retire and leave. The generations of researchers who have been increasingly devalued by their own sector are – surprise, surprise – leaving the sector. It’s not like they’re being rewarded for sticking around.

Even more broadly, it is well known that happy, secure and motivated workers who feel valued by their employer are more productive than those who are anxious and devalued by their employer.

It’s pretty basic. And it’s pretty astonishing that the higher education sector can’t seem to realise it.

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