Catch-22: The struggle to do research on a temporary teaching-only contract

Since 2013 I’ve been fortunate enough to be on a permanent contract as a lecturer, with teaching and research in my workload. But for the past two years after finishing my PhD, this was a much different situation, as I was on casualised teaching-only contracts. Don’t get me wrong; there were many valuable things about working at these jobs: they allowed me to pay the rent (which I desperately needed at the time) and, while the pay was significantly less than what I am earning now, it was at least enough to survive on (which is not the case for many casualised jobs, such as hourly paid teaching).  I have met some fantastic colleagues, and in one of the institutions where I worked, was given some very helpful mentoring. I was able to get some important teaching experience and now have a better understanding of how things work in different institutions.

However, because these contracts were teaching-only, they did not include the time or resources to do research. And it’s very difficult to do research when you’re doing it on your own time and it’s not officially part of your job. Temporary teaching-only contracts often have quite heavy teaching loads, in part because research is not included. I know this sounds unfair (because it is!), but my teaching load was actually heavier when I was working on part-time contracts than it is now on a full-time contract (which is why I’m now able to be much more productive), and the temporary nature of the post meant continually having to apply for the next job, which took a lot of time that could have been spent on research.

And—here’s the catch-22—in HE, research is the only way to escape casualised employment. In other words, no time to publish=no publishing=no permanent job. That’s the reality of today’s job situation in HE, particularly because October 2013 was the cut-off point for including staff in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) census. I should point out that if I did not have publications for the REF, I probably would not have my current job today.

In retrospect, the only way I was able to publish was through literally sacrificing any amount of free time I had: I would write on evenings, weekends, on the train (because these temporary contracts were not really long enough to make it worth relocating, I had to commute). In retrospect, I don’t know how I kept my sanity. I don’t have children or caring responsibilities and have a sympathetic and supportive partner, which made this possible. Otherwise it would have been much more difficult.

Also, I got to know others employed on similar contracts working at the same institution (as we shared the office) and noticed that they were mostly 1) early career academics and 2) younger women (although the HESA statistics do not show a gender disparity in terms of staff employed on temporary, teaching-only contracts). I don’t know how representative these experiences are, but it does make me wonder if the generation of academics is being stuck in these sorts of temporary, teaching only posts to free up time for more established academics (or at least those on teaching-and-research contracts like I am now) to produce publications for the REF, a trap that it is very difficult to escape.

According to the latest HESA statistics, teaching-only contracts are more likely to be temporary and part-time than teaching-and-research contracts.  And now, more disturbingly, almost half of teaching-only contracts are now zero-hours. While my previous contracts were temporary, at least I had the certainty of knowing how many hours a week I would be working, and that I would be earning enough to support myself financially. Can you imagine doing research when you have no idea when you will be working, or if you will be earning enough money to live on? How are you supposed to plan time, or have the peace of mind to write?

These contracts are often defended in terms of employers’ needs for flexibility.  I also hear arguments about how “some people like teaching and don’t want to do research”—but there’s often an implicit assumption that some people don’t want job security either. I also wonder how many people in these posts actually “don’t want to do research” and how many of these people actually do want to do research but are stuck in teaching-only posts, and furthermore, how many are actually early career academics who are struggling to build a profile when they are having to write and publish on their own time, in some cases with little acknowledgment that they are carrying out research. This is why we need to pay more attention to this issue as UCU activists, particularly as more institutions plan to expand the use of teaching-only contracts and as the next REF approaches. It’s particularly important for us to campaign for time, resources and support for casualised staff to carry out research and build academic profiles.