The hidden problem of insecurity among research academics

Tom Barnes, Australian Catholic University:

There is now a lot of research on the excessive casualisation of teaching in Australian universities and its related problems like employment insecurity or the mistreatment of casual teaching staff, including TASA’s recent report. But little has been documented on the problem of contingent employment among research-focused academics. This raises many similar issues to those that arise in teaching, including the lack of career pathways or the exploitation of contingent staff.

The nature of contingent research work often depends upon the type of research undertaken. For example, it seems likely that research teams in the medical and physical sciences employ a very large number and variety of contingent researchers in casual or fixed-term positions, although much of this remains undocumented. Across academia as a whole, fixed-term employment appears to be a common employment type for research academics.

The type of employment is related to different funding streams. For example, funding for research centres generated from consultancies and contracts with external organisations is commonly regarded by university administrations as ‘soft money’ and is thus negatively counterpoised to the ‘hard money’ earned from teaching. So, when the money dries up, so does the (paid) work. This is a major problem for academics who have been employed for many years in research centres but who are denied entitlements normally associated with ongoing employment, such as redundancy payouts. One academic employed at a well-known research centre told me that several staff had been employed on back-to-back 12-month contracts for decades.

Another research academic explained to me how precarity had manifested in her career:

I was an academic on casual contracts for almost 10 years… I started doing research work to help manage the large unpaid gaps between teaching sessions. In the end, I traded in the teaching altogether for more research work because the work was more interesting. There was less unpaid work factored into the contract and so the pay worked out to be better. I was able to publish, got to do some great research and it was generally more collegial…

[But] hours could be really intense and unpredictable because, generally, casuals would be needed during peak periods or on difficult projects when deadlines were close. It was quite hard to fit in study around the work because you were either working flat chat or when the hours dropped off, usually I did too! Without any paid sick leave, this was tricky. Towards the end, I was very sick from being stressed all the time about money, from working too many hours and at the same time always worrying if there would be enough work.

For this academic, finding research work outside the academy has led to more secure employment: ‘I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that casuals leave the sector if they can.’

For those researchers who choose to stay, what can be done? One possible solution is the insertion of clauses on Continuing (Contingent Funded Research) Contracts (CCFRCs) in union-negotiated Enterprise Agreements (EAs). These clauses currently exist at several universities, including Australian National University, Sydney University, University of Queensland, La Trobe University and University of NSW, to name a few. These continuing contracts are meant to provide contingent research academics with similar entitlements to permanent academics while, at the same time, creating a more transparent process for redeployment if contingent funding (i.e., ‘soft money’) is no longer available.

The detail of CCFRCs varies between universities. Some EAs entitle contingent research staff to apply for a CCFRC after a specified period—for example, after three years of continuous employment—although applications can be rejected on ‘reasonable business grounds’, which include insufficient projected revenue or a lack of ‘transferrable skills’. At La Trobe University, the EA allows for automatic conversion to an ongoing research position ‘where staff have at least four years’ continuous service and a further contract of at least six months’ duration’. Academics on CCFRCs are often entitled to redundancy payouts although usually at a lower level than permanent academics.

Unfortunately, not all universities have CCFRCs in their employment agreements and, even where they exist, staff awareness of them is low, especially where the clause requires workers to apply rather than having an automatic conversion to ongoing employment. In these cases, the grounds for denying ongoing employment remain undesirably high, with considerable discretionary flexibility for university managers. Nevertheless, CCFRCs are an option worth considering for many contingent research academics. As one research academic explained to me, ‘they are still relatively insecure but they are better than fixed-term employment’.

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