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?
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.