‘It affects every aspect of our lives’: Academics say universities must stop relying on fixed-term contracts

Dr Amanda Slevin. Picture by Claire Simpson,The Detail

Dr Amanda Slevin. Picture by Claire Simpson,The Detail

ACADEMICS and researchers in Northern Ireland have said they are being left in limbo due to universities’ over-reliance on fixed-term contracts.

Several academics told The Detail that they have no hope of ever getting a permanent job, with figures showing that dozens of people at Queen’s University Belfast alone have been on fixed-term contracts for more than a decade.

The academics said a lack of certainty over contracts - which can vary from a few months to several years - has had a detrimental impact on their relationships and living arrangements and has prevented some from having children.

The latest available figures show that, in September 2022, 20% of Queen’s University staff - 860 people out of a total of 4,300 - were on fixed-term contracts, including researchers, academics and clerical workers.

A total of 60 people at Queen’s have been on fixed-term contracts for more than 10 years.

At Ulster University (UU), around 16% of staff - 419 people out of a total of 2,591 staff - are on fixed-term contracts.

Universities have said researchers are often on limited contracts because they are externally funded by bodies who only provide money for a set amount of time.

However, academics have said the system is unsustainable and needs to change.

Fixed-term staff at Queen’s include research fellow Dr Amanda Slevin, a director of the university’s Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action.

Dr Slevin’s work has helped drive action on climate change and inform government policy across the UK and the Republic, including Northern Ireland’s first Climate Bill, which was passed last year.

But she has never been given a permanent post and is now on her third fixed-term contract at Queen’s, which is due to end next year.

“Over the last few years I have had over 200 impacts, those include high-level inputs to government, public engagement - I have brought together hundreds of people on climate action, my work influences policy and practice generally,” she said.

“There is no more important topic than the climate and ecological crisis.”

Dr Slevin has been an academic for the last 13 years, teaching in universities across Ireland.

She said the picture is the same across the UK and the Republic.

“We’re seen as disposable, universities bring us in to do specific tasks in an area of work and then are happy to let us go,” she said.

Dr Slevin said it has been “really hard” for her to put down roots due to job uncertainty.

“It has damaged long-term relationships,” she said.

“I haven’t been able to have children. I’m 41 now and may have missed my chance.”

Dr Slevin said she “dreams of” a permanent contract.

Last year, she suffered burn-out due to overwork and stress, partly due to her uncertain job situation.

“That’s what precarious employment does,” she said.

“It takes away our control, it takes away our autonomy, it makes us vulnerable. It affects every aspect of our lives - where we live, how we live, what decisions we make around our families and futures.”

Dr Slevin said precarious contracts are also affecting students.

“Students understand that they are in a system which charges them very high fees, that subjects them to a lot of pressures,” she said.

“They can see the pressures that has on us. Staff members are coming in overworked, stressed about their workload and underlying issues around these precarious contracts.

“Students can understand and relate to that and don’t want to see that happening.”

A sign outside Queen's University Belfast during strike action by the UCU. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

A sign outside Queen's University Belfast during strike action by the UCU. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Casual labour

As well as staff on part-time contracts, universities also rely heavily on teaching assistants and occasional lecturers who are not counted as staff.

Queen’s University said that in September this year, 1,777 casual workers who are paid through the university’s Q Work system, including teaching assistants and people who teach extra-mural courses, completed 32,754 hours of work - equivalent to 177 full time workers.

A Queen’s spokeswoman said: “In line with our EW (extended workforce) policy, the University engages individuals in the extended workforce to deliver non-permanent or intermittent services, as and when required; prevent the disruption of service delivery by covering short term staff absences; or provide additional support, skills and experience to meet fluctuating demands."

University staff who are members of the University College Union (UCU) have taken part in strike action over pay and conditions since 2018.

Last week, tens of thousands of staff at 150 universities across the UK took part in three days of industrial action.

UU history lecturer Adrian Grant, who is UCU’s anti-casualisation officer at the university, said there is an incorrect perception that academics have a pathway to a permanent, well-paid job.

Dr Grant was employed on a series of fixed-term contracts but has recently been made permanent.

He said the expansion of higher education over the last 50 years has led to a greater number of people with PhDs.

Dr Grant said universities are keen to get as “many PhD students as possible” for financial reasons.

“But that's creating a bottleneck where you have all of these hugely well qualified people,” he said.

“A lot of them work on the assumption that they will eventually maybe work in academia but there’s very, very few jobs to go around.”

Dr Grant said academics without a permanent post have had to rely on carrying out short-term research, secondments, or providing teaching cover, including maternity leave, to maintain an income.

“That means then that you have this big bulk of people over the last 10 or 15 years who have no solid job security and very little prospect in terms of career development,” he said.

Professor Sean O'Connell. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Professor Sean O'Connell. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

History professor Sean O’Connell, president of the UCU at Queen’s University, said academia had become a “pyramid system”.

“We bring in all these people to do PhDs and they all come in thinking, okay, I'm gonna be a university academic…And we exploit them in terms of ‘hope labour’,” he said.

“We give them the hope that there's a job at the end of the day for them, when really what we need to say is actually maybe one in 10 of you is gonna get an academic job. But that's not going to go on the marketing is it?”

Queen’s University linguistics lecturer, Dr Frances Kane, whose research includes a hugely popular project investigating the linguistic origins of place-names in Northern Ireland, has been on a series of fixed-term contracts for a decade.

She started carrying out post-doctoral research in 2013 but is currently on a lecturer education contract which does not include research time.

Dr Kane said she has been told that she will not be able to get a job without publishing research-heavy academic papers.

“So these are the things that you have to do in your spare time because there's no allocation for it in the post,” she said.

She said there is fierce competition for the few jobs available.

But she has been forced to chop and change between projects, making it difficult to gain expertise in a particular area.

“I can’t apply for grants,” she said.

“I have colleagues in DCU (Dublin City University) that want me to write a grant with them. I would love to but I can’t because for funding bodies you have to be in a permanent post.”

Dr Frances Kane and Dr Veronique Altglas. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Dr Frances Kane and Dr Veronique Altglas. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Dr Veronique Altglas, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work and a member of the Queen’s Senate - the body which governs the university - said short-term contracts mean academics cannot build their careers.

“That's the opposition of what a career in academia should be because you build up, once you have your PhD, you are trying to deepen a particular expertise and a particular way of thinking things,” she said.

She said having colleagues on short-term or precarious contracts causes issues for all academics.

“Because colleagues like Frances are not permanent, we are more overloaded,” she said.

“Because Frances for example, won't do admin. She's not gonna create a new Masters, she probably can't supervise PhD students because she's on a one year contract.

“She doesn't have a lot of time to do pastoral care. She will because she's a good person but she’s not paid for it.”

Dr Altglas said Queen's has many permanent posts which should be filled.

She said Queen’s has a “10% vacancy rate” - which UCU estimated was saving the university an estimated £27 million pounds a year.

However, a spokeswoman for Queen’s rejected the figure and said it was “calculated at a moment in time, against an establishment model that is no longer appropriate”.

“The university has changed its model of allocating job posts and work is underway to develop an appropriate methodology for measuring vacancy rates going forward,” she said.

Professor O’Connell there was enough money to provide better job security for staff.

He said that in 2021/22 Queen’s had an operational surplus of £15.3 million and opened a new £41 million students’ union in September.

“Queen's has financial reserves of over £700m and the sector as a whole has billions in reserve,” he said.

Social mobility

Dr Aisling O’Beirn, a fine art lecturer at Ulster University, said although some academics are leaving higher education due to heavy workloads, it is also harder for younger people to get permanent jobs "with the consequence that new people are not being attracted into the sector".

“(You have) years maybe to do a PhD - the debt accrued by that stage is often enormous, then years of precarity and hope work and having to juggle jobs," she said.

Professor O’Connell said the reliance on short-term contracts is creating a huge barrier for academics who are not from wealthy families.

“We’re moving backwards in terms of social mobility in higher education,” he said.

He added: “People who haven't got money, haven't got family with money… They're struggling to pay the bills and rent.

“They're the ones who drop out. They're the ones who leave the system. So actually, higher education is also going to become academia: the home of the privileged.”

Ulster University's Belfast campus

Ulster University's Belfast campus

Ulster University

Dr Grant said that following lobbying by UCU, Ulster University changed its approach to fixed-term contracts last year.

“At UU now, if you've been on a fixed-term contract, say lecturing or in another part of the university for four years, once you hit that four year mark, you'll be made permanent,” he said.

“And that really doesn’t happen at many other universities.”

Dr Grant said researchers can ask to be made permanent at UU after six years as a fixed-term contract researcher.

“I would argue those positive things are happening because of industrial action and pressure from UCU locally,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Ulster University said following negotiations with trade unions, more than 70 people have been offered permanent contracts.

“We are also seeking ways to work locally with the trade unions in Ulster University to review the need for staff on temporary contracts,” she said.

“While there is recognition on both sides that there will always be a need in specific instances for temporary staff to be employed within the organisation, as an employer we are committed to employing as many staff as possible on substantive permanent contracts.”

The Detail asked Queen’s University if it would adopt the same approach as UU.

“We will not be adopting the same model as UU but we are working on something similar,” a spokeswoman said.

“We are looking at our own analysis and internal movement.”

Dr Grant said although universities have to be flexible, lecturers who teach at the university regularly, even for just 15 hours a week, should be offered a part-time contract.

“That would give you the requisite employment rates around sick pay and maternity pay and everything that goes along with that,” he said.

"That would be a much more secure way, and it would mean that the person on that contract would know that they are substantively employed in that capacity on an ongoing basis.”

Receive The Detail story alerts by email