Dr Kirsty Anderson* is a member of the UCU and a Research Fellow at the University of Stirling, where she currently works on a casual fixed term contract.
This type of contract runs out after a certain period of time, sometimes only a couple of months, in Anderson’s case it’s after a couple of years.
Before coming to Stirling, Anderson was a lecturer at another university. She’d eventually quit lecturing though and move into research because of the “enormous workload that meant that I didn’t have time to do the other part of my job, which was research”.
The tough working conditions were made even worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were supporting students as well, who maybe moved to Scotland, who didn’t know anyone. Suddenly, they were in lockdown, so we did a lot of sort of pastoral support as well as trying to teach online,” said Anderson.
One of the demands of the University and College Union (UCU), of which Anderson is a member, is to end all casual contracts on university campuses. They argue that workers on casual contracts get treated worse than permanent employees, are vulnerable to exploitation, and cannot plan their professional and personal lives.
According to the UCU, “68% of research staff in higher education are on fixed term contracts”, many of whom are PhD and Masters students.
For Anderson, casual work is “really difficult for planning your life, but it also makes us really vulnerable because we never know if we’re gonna have a job in a few months’ time”.
She adds that it’s difficult to ask for fair treatment if that means that your employer might not renew your contract.
“When you’re on quite a short-term contract, always in the back of your mind is ‘Am I still gonna have a job?’ And that can mean an impact on being able to sleep properly and stress levels,” said Anderson.
“I know definitely for me, when I was on my shorter term contract, that was always there for me early in the morning — Am I still going to have a job? What am I going to do? How am I going to pay for my accommodation?”
Toxic work culture
This uncertainty puts a lot of pressure on researchers, making them work extra hard so that the employer keeps them on, and this often leads to many hours of unpaid work, as Anderson said: “There is definitely in research more generally, not speaking about myself, quite a toxic culture of pressure to work more hours because we’ve got to. We’ve got our funding and we’ve got to do what we said we were going to do.”
At one point, Anderson even thought of moving to the private sector: “I used to work in Costa, so maybe I could go back to working in a coffee shop, that would be more secure, and in some ways, like having that secure income would be preferable when things were really stressful. So I have thought about it, but I’m here for now. I’m here for now.”
Despite the hardship, Anderson counts herself as one of the lucky ones because she doesn’t have any children or dependents, who make it harder for people to take the financial risk and go to research.
Then there’s the issue of the pay gap. She points out that casualisation, pension cuts, and stagnating wages have a greater impact on women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Effect on students
The effect of casualisation will be felt by students too, Anderson says: “The conditions that we work in impact how much we’re able to give to them, right? If we’re overworked and stressed out, that impacts on the quality of the education that we can offer.”
And it is the students today who will be working in these conditions tomorrow: “Students will graduate and be looking for jobs and they don’t want to graduate into a job which has got staff on strike because conditions are poor.
“This is now starting to be wider than just UCU, isn’t it? This is now other education unions, health unions, and the railway unions, postal workers, civil servants. These are all jobs that students are gonna go into. So we’ve really got to fight to make sure that the pensions are good for them coming through as well,” said Anderson.
*Kirsty Anderson is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the researcher and her current job position.
Featured image credit: Simi Borovska
Fourth year journalism student at the University of Stirling and Brig's politics editor.
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