I’m striking because insecure academic contracts are ruining my mental health | Sarah Darley | Education
This week, staff in 60 universities across the UK have been on an eight-day strike over pensions, pay and employment conditions. This has included growing casualisation in universities – which, as a researcher employed on a fixed-term contract, is my life.
I’m not alone. A recent University and College Union (UCU) survey reported that 70% of the 49,000 researchers in higher education are currently employed on fixed-term contracts, as are 37,000 teaching staff (the majority of whom are paid hourly).
I have met many of these staff on the picket line this week. We have been heartened to receive the support of senior staff with permanent contracts who want equal security for all their colleagues, as well as students astounded by our precarious employment conditions.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I love being a researcher and working in a university. I feel privileged to be surrounded by staff and students who are passionate about learning and research. I love being a health services researcher and producing work that has a real impact on patients. However, as one of the many research staff within the higher education sector, precarious conditions are making it incredibly hard to continue.
I got my PhD at the end of 2016 and was thrilled when I secured a job within the same university as a research associate. Since then I have been employed on four separate contracts, varying from 12 to 18 months. This means that I, like so many other research, teaching and support staff, have to continually search and apply for what is basically the same continuous role.
This constant job search has a detrimental effect on my research projects, as the last few months of a contract are spent looking for my next position – and I usually have to leave before the project ends to start a new role. Likewise, it is not unusual for me to be working on publications during evenings and weekends. This excessive workload leaves little time for career development, such as writing fellowship bids or developing independent research interests that enable progression and research leadership.
A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute described an “epidemic” of poor mental health among higher education staff. It blamed excessive workloads, performance management, and insecure, short-term employment contracts. I’ve felt this first-hand: for most of this year I have been feeling physically and mentally unwell due to the stress of not knowing where I would be working after September.
Research opportunities in my area were scarce at my university and I started looking across the UK. But relocating to a new city on your own is challenging, especially when it’s for only 12 months. I can’t imagine how hard it is for people with children or other dependents.
This kind of uncertainty makes it impossible to have any long-term plans. The decisions that permanent employees take for granted become no-go areas: you can’t buy a house or start a family. Even planning annual leave is difficult due to uncertainty and the time needed for job applications and interviews on an almost annual basis.
Going on strike is never an easy decision. I hate causing disruption to the team I work with and losing eight days’ pay, especially so close to Christmas. Striking is particularly hard for staff in precarious employment situations – not only for financial reasons but also for the fear of being branded a “troublemaker”. I share these worries but I am just one of many in precarious employment. The current strike action, and possible future strike action, is unfortunately necessary: we must demand fair and secure working conditions for all staff for the benefit of teaching, research and staff wellbeing.