Taking account of contracts

In my previous post I added up a few figures on my financial year as a contract academic. I suggested, too, that what was important here was recognition. In saying that, I wanted to move the debate away from my personal circumstances – mine are just one example, after all – and open up the question of what would be a fair practices for contract work on the one hand, and what a successful contract picture of work might be for the individual.

To put that issue in another way, the contracts I described, which were for teaching, only accounted for half of my work. I went on to list some of my research activity this year, which was all unpaid. And yet, as I’ve heard Department heads talk about before, under current ERA rules research by teaching contract staff is still collected by Departments and contributes as their research outputs.

That’s theft, isn’t it? Taking something without paying for it?'He had a forune in intellectual property, and yes, he DID take it with him.'

If there are too few full-time and permanent positions to bring up a new generation of researchers, then contract positions, including those hourly-based teaching ones, need to pay for research if they want to list it, and as a result to be attractive enough to not lose talent elsewhere. It will follow that contract employees are also researchers to be supported, and included in research funding. There should be paid research options available for short term contracts. Departments can then rightly claim their research work.

Not everyone will have the good fortune to have stellar numbers of research publications. Little of that is to do with talent. Too many external factors impinge on this to make it an equitable index of capacity, even within a single discipline. For example, you may be an excellent researcher, with an promising project that is sure to have significant extra-university impact. But if you have to teach so much to make ends meet that your project doesn’t get the time put into it that it needs, then that promise will be wasted. Not by you, but by the department that employs you.

At the same time, too little attention is paid to teaching quality. This when there is increasing pressure on student retention. The attitude of many department heads is that ‘anyone can teach’, just stick them in front of a class. Maybe. But I have seen in teaching teams that worked for me tutors who drive students away, and skilled tutors who know how to enthuse their students, develop their interests, and draw them in to commit to majoring in their discipline. Which would you rather employ? Wouldn’t it make sense to cultivate the latter? But this expertise is also wasted by departments, who see no incentive in holding and developing it.  Note that “Teaching-focused” positions are not the way to go either, because good teaching at University level thrives on research. Those positions, however well-intentioned, are dead ends.

Considering this, here are some ideas about what contracts could include.

  • Teaching contracts ought to have a research component, negotiable by the employee. Project descriptions and planned outputs can be included in semester based contracts. Departments can then legitimately claim that output as theirs. For example, say I am contracted to teach 4 hours face to face a week (which is actually about 7-8 hrs a week at the base rate)*. I could also propose a day (7 hrs) of research to be included in my contract, with the output and delivery date agreed upon.
  • If contract staff are also researchers, they should also have access to some level of research funding, even if this is at a reduced level to permanent faculty. Some is better than nothing. Access based on contract length is simply a flag to HR to encourage them to keep contracts short in order to reduce costs. The incentive for departments here is that it makes delivery of high quality research more likely, and more timely.
  • One-off contracting fees. Negotiating a contract takes up valuable time, as does looking for them. For Departments, looking for contract staff is also costly, especially if they are a disadvantage such as distant location. A contract overhead fee would mean Departments could attract the best staff, and also provide an incentive to contract staff for longer, reducing churn. On the contractor’s side, the fee would recognise their attractiveness as an employee, and also recognise the costs of establishing oneself at a new university, with new relationships and working environment.


*A note on casual contract hours.

How much should a casual academic take on? Often, the question is decided by the dollar figure. But that’s likely to have you end up over-loaded and burnt out. Partly the question depends on discipline and teaching type (labs, tuts, seminars & lectures, etc.). But my rule of thumb, which I will explain another day, is to never take on more than I can comfortably handle in 2.5 days, including marking. That way I always have time for research.



5 thoughts on “Taking account of contracts

  1. It’s tough for you and unfair for everybody in your position… raising a family under these circumstances must be so very stressful! And how many years have you studied and paid for your education? All these things are just unfortunate facts – but then for the department to claim credit for your unpaid research work… that is too much. Thank you for posting this!


    1. Hi! Didn’t realise you blogged – glad you found me 🙂 I don’t know if “our” Dept has done this, but it’s certainly there as a possibility in the present system. I’m getting along ok, despite it all. But trying to add some cause for change as I go.


  2. The department won’t be using any of Andrew’s publications for the next ERA submission. So there is no sense in which it could be taking ‘credit’ for his publications or benefitting from his unpaid research. However, Andrew benefits from the affiliation with the department and university, his email address, access to the full library holdings and use of office space and printing resources and the department benefits from his excellent teaching.

    I hope that the research that Andrew has been doing helps him to get the academic job that he wants. As Neil put it on Facebook many of us have been through this process. Not easy to hear, but it is possible to break through.


  3. Hi Richard, and thanks for your contribution to this.

    As I carefully pointed out, I am not talking about my own circumstances here, but commenting on a systematic possibility within Australian research politics. I have no bone to pick with the Dept of Philosophy at MQ, with whom I enjoy working. I am generously mentored there and I contribute to it’s community.

    But that’s not what I was talking about. I was responding to a general request to talk honestly about the ECR experience and point out a flaw in the system, and also suggesting a way to fix it. I’m sure it would be helpful to hear your experience, too.

    Let me respond to a couple of your other points.

    You comment, and have mentioned before to me, that many of your generation went through this too. However, it doesn’t follow that 1) circumstances are the same for those following – Neil conceded that they’re worse; 2) just because there is a precedent does not make it right or good. Why defend something not optimal? Or do you believe it actually has a positive function?

    Also, affiliation. This isn’t worth much at all. Email addresses and libraries? Neither of those confer a substantial benefit. And under blind review, affiliation shouldn’t mean anything. Office space… again, I’m an exception. so that can’t be included here.

    The real benefit of affiliation as I see it is the social environment of a research community, where colleagues share questions, answers and problems.


  4. I just wanted to make sure that the impression given by the post and taken up by the poster above that the department is somehow benefitting from your unpaid research is not true. Perhaps there is a better way for recent graduates to earn teaching and research contracts without those being FTE. So your post raises the question what should casual teaching positions be for? Should they primarily be for PhD students and recent graduates to gain some experience and add teaching to their CV? Or should we allow people, many years out from their PhD to load up on teaching close to FTE teaching loads, but with none of the benefits of a full-time research and teaching academic? I think that the latter is deeply problematic and creates a difficult situation for both the individuals and the departments concerned.

    If a casual academic objects to their research being used for the ERA, I think that the University should respect that. If the casual academic would like their research to count towards the submission (which is based on fields of research not departments), that also seems fine. If a casual academic is in a position to negotiate a contract by which they get paid for teaching and research on a casual basis, that also seems entirely reasonable. Perhaps then, there are contracts that would pay for both teaching and research and not be FTE, but which should not be rolled over year after year unless the department intends to make that person full-time. However, such contracts may be difficult to navigate legally – I’m not an expert on that. Full time temporary positions with a standard 40-40-20 spread are my preference, but getting funding for them is hard in the current climate – unless, for example, there is matched funding from a research council.

    Nothing is ever ideal or optimal, lamentably.


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