Individual Stories: The Long Read

STORY ONE

I’m currently facing the end of my 10-year career in higher education. But I’ve been here before.

In 2008, at the age of 30 and with almost ten years’ experience in one industry, the financial crash brought an end to my first career. To cut a long story short, despite always being very sensible with the financial responsibilities we’ve taken on, we will never fully recover from the financial fallout of that redundancy.

As I absorbed the news of companies laying off staff and high street staples closing for good, I scratched around for freelance work and other employment and tried to keep my sanity in check while staring out at a bleak future. My lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety was fuelled by the sense of hopelessness I was experiencing and if it hadn’t been for my girlfriend (now my wife), this story might have ended very differently.

After 18 months in and out of low-paid work, I was presented with half a chance to create a new career in higher education from the very bottom. I was terrified of showing how incapable I was but I didn’t really have any pride left to lose, so I grabbed it. I was on a low-level agency temp wage but I worked unpaid overtime while I worked out how to do the job. I took on any extra responsibilities that were up for grabs – which were coming thick and fast. The team was made of a few permanent staff members – who had worked there a long time and managed to keep quiet, sticking to the same few tasks – and the precariat who buzzed around them, hoping for a sniff of a real job. I blagged it convincingly enough that I was offered a short contract. I took on even more responsibilities and was given another contract. I continued to develop and prove my worth and I was offered a permanent position. I even gained a promotion. Now, having replicated those efforts in other roles, I’m 42, 10 years into this second career and again I find myself at the end of a career I’ve worked so hard to build, through no fault of my own.

I previously held a permanent university position and initially took a secondment into a fixed-term role to move up a pay grade. That role was almost impossible: I was effectively filling two posts and I knew that as long as I continued to somehow keep going, nothing would change. After two years, I changed roles and sure enough, I was replaced by two people. My new job was also a fixed-term role and moving into it brought into question my permanent post. Line managers and HR staff, perhaps having been in comfortable HE roles for too long, didn’t anticipate my concern about releasing that security. “You wouldn’t go back to it, would you?” My answer was always the same: “Yes, I would: it would just about pay the bills.” Nonetheless, I let the permanent role go so that the person who was filling it had certainty in their career even though I knew that I was making myself vulnerable. Assurances that the University would look after me didn’t completely fill me with confidence but I took the risk to take the next step in my career.

As the end of my first fixed term drew close, an extension which would have brought my contract into line with that of the department and its academic director’s position was rejected. Apparently an ongoing review meant that roles like mine could not be given long-term extensions. It was something of surprise then, that shortly after that, one of my counterparts left the University (due to being unable to secure a permanent post) and their post was advertised as permanent.

When the lockdown happened, the University decided to freeze recruitment and let contracts like mine expire. The University leadership seem to be dealing with the anticipated financial burden as though they have shareholder dividends to think about rather than as an organisation which needs to build itself anew for a somewhat different future. While I’m partly envious of permanent staff who, for the moment at least, seem to be keeping a job at the University, some will be having to take on so much extra work that they’ll be burnt out within months.

What was previously mild annoyance at issues with my contract quickly ramped up into full-blown panic. Initially I was joining large open zoom meetings and was one of few colleagues brave enough to ask questions of faculty leaders. The answers were very careful and somewhat non-committal. I don’t feel I’ve been given the practical support that I need to prepare for what lies ahead.

This time I have more transferable skills but I’m also older, I’m a parent and I have more financial responsibilities. And now, again, I’m struggling. Struggling to focus, struggling to sleep at night, struggling to motivate myself to get exercise or do anything other than the minimum. I find momentary comfort in unhealthy choices and then feel guilty about that. My patience is strained and my constant battle to keep it together around my family is under even greater pressure due to sharing our family home with a young son who is doing his best to cope with the lockdown.

At some point soon I’m going to have to not only face the world but far more besides. I will have to drown out the inner doubt and feign confidence; ignore the self-loathing and push myself; see through the noisy, chaotic rabble inside my head and sell myself. Me, against an extraordinary number of other people who have been cast aside as a consequence of a pandemic which the government has completely mismanaged.

Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

STORY TWO

I’ve just had a tooth extracted, and I blame academic precarity. Not because universities are (yet) harvesting the teeth of their workers, but because working in higher education has meant years of temporary residence in various cities and various countries, a permanent shortage of money, and a constant need to produce unspecified amounts of work: as much as you can, as fast as you can. I had taken very seriously the instructions of my primary school teachers to look after my teeth, but for years I simply hadn’t been able to see a dentist. When I could finally register with a practice, my first appointment was cancelled due to the coronavirus lockdown. My first ever serious toothache started a few weeks later.

The precarity had, on the other hand, been going on for much longer. I was privileged enough to be able to pay for the privilege of my first few precarious positions in higher education. A ‘visiting’ fellowship in a prosperous German city came with a stipend which didn’t cover the actual cost of living for a month in that city. An ‘early career’ fellowship at a UK research institute ‘paid’ me for six months via expenses claims. I diligently kept receipts for every weekly shop and lunchtime sandwich as if trapped on some interminable business trip, but the receipt from the barbers proved to be a claim too far for the finance department: no haircuts allowed in the precarious university.

Between such positions I did all sorts of jobs to keep myself afloat: exam invigilation, calling university alumni to solicit donations, some translations and proofreading, some private tutoring. But the difficulty was not so much the getting of money as the dilemma posed by every penny earned from activity other than research and teaching: if I ‘stopped’ to earn money, I was falling behind in the race to develop the kind of professional profile which might (either within the next few years, or not at all) open a way out of this situation; if I didn’t ‘stop’ to earn, I would soon be out of the game altogether.

A one-year reprieve from this predicament came via a rare opportunity: a university (in Germany) was paying a few ‘early career’ academics such as myself for teaching on an hourly basis—always and everywhere a below-minimum wage job when the actual number of hours needed for preparation, marking and supporting students are taken into account—but was also willing to provide a simultaneous research stipend which made the ‘job’ (legally it was something else) a viable proposition. Every month I collected a little pocket money for full-time work designing and delivering modules which met the rather specific needs of students at a German university who often couldn’t speak or read German (I was there to provide for exchange students, in part), whilst the stipend afforded me the financial freedom to squeeze every last drop of time out of evenings and weekends on a research project which fortunately bore some fruit.

Alongside this there were of course the endless job and fellowship applications, for a kaleidoscope of positions which paid a pittance in money in a whole truckload in fake kudos. At some of the world’s leading educational establishments there were opportunities to be some sort of short-term visiting fellow—conveniently assumed to be ‘visiting’ from an equally well-padded institution, rather than from the damp and chilly land of unemployment—and to be an ‘early career fellow’ in a ‘career’ which had so far not included a single actual job and with no prospect of anything more than another stage in my ‘early’ career beyond this next short-term position.

The precarious academic is supposed to be working their passage towards a permanent position, but in reality you are just part of the army of stevedores who do a huge proportion of the work that needs to be done in higher education under terms and conditions which exploit first this fiction, then you: your mind, your body, your time; years of your life. ‘Jobs’ which would appear scandalous elsewhere are veneered with the prestige of a major university and the comfortable surroundings of university towns. You are not ‘early’ in your career, you are fighting tooth and nail for a career which barely exists and may very well end at any time. The one certainty is that this end will not come before the system has run up a debt to you which it will never repay.

These lies do not have a single point of origin. They have grown with the problem they try to hide, because the problem is too ugly to contemplate. Precarity is a miserable way of organising any form of work: for skilled work which requires long-term planning, it gains an additional dimension of farce. There is no grand instigator of this black comedy, no one pulling the strings. It is the farce and fraudulence into which we descend when we forget ourselves, when we loose touch with the bigger picture of who we are and begin to act on our momentary impulses as if they have no longer-term consequences.

Universities feel so free to exploit the abundance of eager would-be teachers and researchers that they hardly notice themselves doing so by all sorts of easy, noiseless means: people doing productive, original work can be classified as ‘students’ for financial purposes (because, in a higher and more noble sense, we are students of one sort or another); short-term employment is excused by the supposed exigencies of specialisation; the risks inherent in planning a workforce in the uncertain business of research can be pushed onto the narrow shoulders of the researchers themselves, whilst the broad shoulders of the gargantuan institution collect the rewards when research pays off. Focused on day-by-day competition amongst themselves, universities do not have to consider the longer-term consequences of courses of action in which they all participate because collectively they have no competition: there are currently no other structures in human society capable of producing the kinds of knowledge which universities create. They may degrade themselves in their scramble to get on top of one another, but as long as all degrade themselves equally the scramble continues much as before.

I am currently hunkered down on a small island in this storm. One of my better options worked out: a three-year research fellowship lies at the most sheltered end of the vast archipelago of precarity. Even so, ever since the first three months of this fellowship had passed, its end date is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night. It is an ‘early career’ fellowship, and I spend my days outwardly working towards the future and inwardly preparing myself for the likelihood that this fellowship will be the end of my career. Every time that the music stops, there is a strong chance that you will find yourself too far from a chair. There is ultimately little that you can do to improve your chances, you just have to take those that you find. At least I eventually managed to see dentist; a shame that it was a few weeks too late. Better luck next time?

23 June 2020

STORY THREE

I was very pleased to be able to join the University of Manchester in 2019 to take up a two-year contract as an IT professional. However soon after I had given notice to my then- employer, but before any paperwork had been signed, the University unilaterally reduced the term to twelve months, citing a recruitment freeze. Nevertheless I accepted the revised job offer, commencing work on campus in February 2019.

Shortly after my arrival a project was announced to form a ‘hybrid team’ in IT comprising campus staff and ‘overseas colleagues’ from the New Delhi based multinational corporation HCL. It was emphasised by managers there were no plans to shed campus roles owing to this initiative, and that in fact new opportunities could be created.

For the next year my IT team-mates and I worked hard to welcome and ‘onboard’ our new overseas colleagues, setting up IT infrastructure for them and familiarising them with our business processes. My contract was extended for a further six months in February of this year, but by this point senior managers had started to murmur about a fresh round of redundancies to accommodate cost overruns. However no definite information concerning the future staffing of IT on campus was put out, despite repeated requests from staff and unions.

With regard to our overseas colleagues, after a series of major IT contretemps caused by their lack of due diligence and technical expertise, it had become clear to us that the University was receiving questionable value for the considerable sums of money it was laying out in contracting their parent corporation.

We were therefore dismayed and shocked to hear the announcement earlier this summer that technical roles in IT would be handed over to the external partners following a round of redundancies and fixed-term contract terminations. Though this was ostensibly predicated upon the COVID-19 lockdown emergency and its impact upon student numbers for the upcoming academic year, the suspicion cannot be removed that senior leadership have used the crisis as cover to push ahead with a long-cherished, but never openly avowed, ambition to gut IT Services of technical staff, retaining only a handling capability on campus to direct external contractors.

When I was informed, three months ago, that my own contract would not be renewed, I decided therefore to appeal (under the agreed and documented HR process) on the grounds not only of the very strong business case for my retention, but also the gross social irresponsibility of casting a loyal and hard-working employee on to the dole at a time of national crisis and high unemployment. Despite the very clear risk posed to the business by the loss of my technical expertise and site-specific knowledge, my appeal has met with nothing more than lukewarm acknowledgement from managers and procrastination from HR. Rather their priorities have resting upon securing ‘knowledge transfer’ — in effect having me train my overseas replacements before I am compelled to leave; meaningful pastoral care has been entirely absent. Last week I was informed by email that it may not be possible to hold an appeals panel before the termination of my contract. This would seem to be a clear breach of the appeals procedure, but as has become the norm in such cases, violations of process by the organisation towards employees are simply disregarded.

Though I greatly enjoy working with colleagues at the University, I feel that I have been consistently misled by HR and senior management concerning my prospects of secure employment on campus. In fact, I would go so far as to describe the offshoring of jobs to an overseas corporation at a time of national crisis as unconscionable. And this choice very much gives the lie to the University’s much trumpeted commitment to engaging with the community in Manchester and supporting local businesses in the region.

Indeed, it is sad to see our campus blazing a trail among research-intensive British universities in outsourcing and casualising both professional and academic staff. Such indeed are the hallmarks of an aggressive and insecure commercial concern, not collegial and ethical behavior worthy of a world-class University.

10 August 2020

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