Guest Post by Órla Meadhbh Murray: Precarity in the Ivory-Tower – Bringing Up Working Conditions at Conferences

Órla Meadhbh Murray addresses precarious academic working conditions as the elephant in the room at conferences.

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Elephant for Orla post.jpegBringing up academic working conditions at academic conferences is an uncomfortable business, yet given worsening conditions in academia it is an increasingly popular topic. As a postgraduate student, over the past four years I have attended many sociology and feminist conferences around the UK and Europe.  At these conferences, the ‘neoliberal academy’ is a much-discussed topic, specifically with reference to academic working conditions and precarious contracts, for example zero-hours or hourly-paid temporary positions. It might be informally discussed over coffee, in advice sessions about academic careers, or as part of the ‘proper’ papers and panels, but either way it keeps coming up. And what I find particularly interesting is how permanently contracted academics respond to these discussions of precarity within universities.

Permanently contracted academics bear the brunt of many aspects of the neoliberal academy; overworked, stressed, and worried, they are being asked to do more, teach and support more students, produce more papers, secure more grants. Nevertheless, they have secure contracts, with which come a salary, a pension, and access to resources and rights that insecurely contracted staff do not. This very present inequality amongst academic staff becomes the elephant in the room that many people would like to ignore because it makes the conference space too uncomfortable, too negative, a little bit too close to home. For an overview of these issues in UK and Irish academia see Lopes & Dewan, 2015 and Courtois & O’Keefe, 2015.

On four separate occasions over the past four years, I have witnessed conference speakers bringing up academic working conditions and worries about being precariously employed, only to be shut down by permanently employed academic staff. While I have witnessed more incidents like this, these four stick out because they all involved feminist women, and so their rejection, dismissal, or discomfort felt all the more disappointing.

Occasion 1 – A warning against ‘navel-gazing’ in response to a discussion about the unpaid work increasingly done by hourly-paid teaching staff in UK universities and the outsourcing of cleaning staff.

Occasion 2 – A paper on the gendered nature of academic ‘housework’ receiving a peeved question asking: ‘Where is your appreciation of the fun and joyous aspects of academia?’

Occasion 3 – A paper on how stressed everyone was in academia (not specifically focusing on precarity, but this came up in the Q&A), to which an audience member tries to get everyone to focus on the positive news that there were lots of great young women entering the academy.

Occasion 4 – A PhD student and tutor at a postgraduate-oriented event bringing up the awful working conditions at her university only to be shut down by her supervisor, who corrected her narrative by stated how this university was actually a great place to work.

Variations on the same theme keep coming up: it isn’t that bad; it has always been difficult for early-career academics and we’ve all been through it so just get on with it; let’s not be negative and ruin the conference; or, we are too privileged as academics to discuss our working conditions.

However, for precariously employed academics, their contract status is a present concern in the conference space, regardless of whether or not they bring it up. Perhaps they did not have access to conference funding at their institution; that is reserved for permanent or more securely employed staff only. Perhaps they had to take on an extra tutorial group that past teaching term to afford to pay the conference fees, accommodation, travel, and food. They arrive at the conference worried about money and desperate to get the most out of it.

Whether we want to discuss it at or conferences or not, there is a particular structural problem around insecure contracts in academia that is getting worse. For a recent overview of the situation in UK higher education see UCU’s April 2016 report or a recent Guardian article about part-time lecturers. And of course this is not limited to UK higher education; our experiences mimic the broader shift towards precarity in many other sectors and countries. But what makes the academy such an interesting example is the narrative that it is a cushy or enjoyable job – the privileged ivory tower – and therefore we should shut up and appreciate our position, neatly drawing a veil over any dodgy working conditions. Efforts to unionise and challenge working beyond paid hours or insecure contracts in academia are often couched in ‘I know it isn’t as bad as …’ acknowledgements of privilege or enjoyment of the work itself. And while it is important to acknowledge that academia is a privileged sphere, is a middle-class profession, and has high wages and flexibility, this does not magic away the structural problems in the sector. Addressing working conditions in academia need not distract from our important work in challenging and attempting to solve ‘real-work’ problems, but it just keeps coming up because it is a distracting problem and academia is a real life workplace with rights and unions and problems.

And of course the issues of precarity do not affect everyone equally; this is a diversity issue. If we think about who is more likely to survive regularly moving jobs, taking on unpaid work, and negotiating the lack of access to equal employment rights, it becomes clear that precarity is a gendered, raced, and classed issue.

If you are on a student or working visa, temporary contracts make it more difficult, if not impossible, to stay in academia because zero-hours or insecure contracts are insufficient to get a working visa. If you don’t have a partner, family, or friends with the means to house and feed you when you don’t have a secure income or are between contracts, then you are less likely to survive the precarious nature of early-career academia.

If you have caring responsibilities or are disabled it is more difficult to ‘go where the jobs are’, especially when these are often 9-12 month temporary contracts and it is unclear how much leeway there is to negotiating parental leave, sick leave, or reasonable adjustments for disabilities. Do precarious academics hold off on having children in the hope of a permanent contract? How do academics managing caring for elderly, sick, or disabled relatives alongside the demands of the job? Do disabled academics hide their disability rather than ask for adjustments in order to seem ‘less demanding’ and amendable? Or do they all drop out of the rat race because the demands are too much? The more privilege one has the longer one can stick it out on precarious contracts.

So when precarious workers bring up worsening conditions at academic conferences, the knee-jerk response from established academics might be to shy away from these uncomfortable and unpleasant conversations, to turn to more pleasant, more abstract, or less emotional topics; things and people’s lives that are not in the room. We might not want to turn the academic gaze back on our own institutions, but we must.

About Órla Meadhbh Murray…
Órla Meadhbh Murray is a PhD candidate and an hourly-paid tutor/lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh conducting an institutional ethnography of UK higher education. Órla has just co-published a chapter about feminist work in academia with Muireann Crowley and Lena Wånggren and is due to publish a chapter on negotiating being a feminist killjoy as an early-career academic later this year. Órla tweets @orlammurray.

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