Is this the end of job security in academia?

Colleges turn to casual contracts to cut costs as lecturers struggle to survive

Sean McKillen of the University of Limerick: There tends to be a lack of transparency over what student teachers are entitled to, such as money for corrections or what work they’re required to do in return for fee or partial fee waivers. Photograph: Brian Gavin Press 22

Academia was once among the most respectable and secure careers. In recent years, however, it has become one of the most precarious places to work.

Younger lecturers struggle to get any hours while permanent and established academic staff are so overwhelmed that they have little choice but to push more administrative work on their younger colleagues.

Now, unions say the terms and conditions of non-academic and administrative staff are also coming under threat, with Trinity College and the University of Limerick accused of weakening terms and conditions for these staff.

Why are universities relying so heavily on casual staff, who is affected and what may be the long-term consequences for our higher education institutions?


Dr Theresa O'Keeffe of UCC and Dr Aline Courtois of University College London have written about the problem of precarious employment in Irish third-level institutes.

They say casualisation in the Irish third-level sector is systemic and that it can’t be blamed on austerity because it predates the recession. They point out that student numbers have increased as staff numbers get squeezed.

O’Keeffe says many permanent staff have to lean on people who are more precarious than they are, which can be a source of discomfort.

Research carried out by the University of Limerick’s postgraduate student union (see panel) found that 33 per cent of lecturers there are precariously employed.

Neoliberal culture

The union’s most recent annual report says this is a “damning statistic and indicative of the neoliberal culture that has firmly taken hold of third-level institutions” and they fear that, unless UL acts, it “will not be able to reach its targets for PhD recruitment in the coming years”.

Lecturers at UL and other universities have previously spoken out about having to borrow from family and friends, or top-up their pay with social welfare, because they are earning less than €10,000 a year on short-term, casual contracts.

One highly experienced lecturer at UL, who has a strong publication record, told The Irish Times he has "given up" on ever getting a permanent job there.

But the problem isn’t confined to UL and seems to be widespread across the sector. Last year, a Government report found that, in some institutions, up to two-thirds of third-level teachers lack full-time or permanent work.

The Cush report recommended that academic staff be entitled to a contract of indefinite duration after two years, but third-levels have been slow to implement it. Non-academic staff were excluded from the report's terms of reference. Speaking in the Dáil earlier this year, Minister for Education Richard Bruton said that if a university is not implementing its recommendations, unions representing lecturers can have the matter addressed using dispute resolution procedures.

Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, says he accepts it may take time for universities to implement changes, but that trade unions are already overwhelmed with taking cases on behalf of lecturers who were denied their legal right to permanency.

Precarious employment

He added that universities need support and help to implement the Cush report, but the Department of Education has done “nothing in terms of realistic engagement to help them . . . it is obvious that they don’t care about the growth of precarious employment.”

Robert Hutchinson, academic representative for the Unite union at UL, says staff have a high teaching load and a lot of research to do, so they have to ask casual staff to help out.

“They’re sympathetic to workers’ difficulties, but there are not enough hours in the day. That said, UL’s HR department has now addressed the issue of pay and instructed departments that casual staff must be properly paid for their work.”

Figures from the Higher Education Authority show there are some 819 full-time temporary or contract staff and 420 part-time temporary or contract staff at Irish third-levels, compared to 9,393 core academic staff. These are all measured as whole-time equivalents.

While there has been a lot of focus on the conditions of young academics, some third-level institutions have also been moving to change terms and conditions for support staff.

This has flared up most prominently at UL, which founded UniJobs as a not-for-profit, wholly owned subsidiary of the university to hire non-academic staff for temporary periods of time. UL is the sole shareholder while Tommy Foy, UL’s director of human resources, sits on the board of UniJobs.

The Irish Times spoke to two other senior academics at UL, both of whom asked not to be named anywhere in this article.

They have concerns that the very presence of UniJobs on campus is leading to a growth in precarious employment, that staff hired through it have no entitlement to permanency or pensions. Meanwhile, their employment rights, although recognised by law, are limited.

Temporary workers

Mark Mulqueen, director of marketing and communications for UL, says people hired through UniJobs are agency staff and are protected under employment legislation for temporary workers, which gives them the same basic pay and working time conditions as directly hired workers, including the right to join a union.

They are not members of the occupational pension scheme but can apply for permanent vacancies across the campus as they arise. Many, Mulqueen says, have been successful in securing them.

Trinity College Dublin has also come under scrutiny, with management deciding not to offer permanent contracts to non-academic staff and instead giving them contracts of between one and seven years. Siptu organiser Karl Byrne says this means they can lose out on pension rights and job security. Trinity and Siptu are locked in negotiations amid warning of potential industrial action.

The Higher Education Authority, meanwhile, says it does not have a role in institutional industrial relations.

“We have brought the Cush report to the institutions but the HEA does not have a position on the document,” says Malcolm Byrne, the authorities head of communications.

One of the problems for Irish colleges is a lack of security around their income, and the HEA says institutions do need some flexibility when it comes to recruitment because their income from research and overseas students can fluctuate.

The number of non-permanent contracts has increased since the employment control framework, introduced during the worst days of the recession, placing severe limits on the number of staff that could be hired.

“If the institutions could not have offered temporary contracts, many posts would have been unfilled,” says Byrne.

However, colleges have struggled to return to normal and lack of permanency is becoming the new norm. It remains to be seen if the best and brightest will be drawn to such a precarious career.


Sean McKillen, a PhD student, has seen the impact of precarious employment in college first-hand: researchers forced to work for free; lecturers ineligible for benefits; adjunct staff.

As president of the postgraduate students’ union from 2015-2016 at the University of Limerick, he dealt with a regular stream of academics. On issue kept rearing its head: the casual way people were being allocated teaching hours for lecturers or tutorials.

“Much of the teaching at third level is now carried out by precariously employed lecturers, researchers and adjunct staff,” says McKillen.

“I have met over 200 researchers who have similar complaints: coercion, intimidation and pressure to fall into line.

“Back in 2014, precarious workers in UL hosted an information day for PhD student and casual staff, to look at the issues that people are facing. I should stress that these issues are not unique to UL.”

Across the board, he says, there tends to be a lack of transparency over what student teachers are entitled to, such as money for corrections or what work they’re required to do in return for fee or partial fee waivers.

"In some cases, students who were awarded funding from the Irish Research Council say that they were coerced by their departments into providing free teaching in exchange for their scholarships; the IRC clearly says that teachers should be paid," he says.

“One of the reasons we came together in 2014 was because of the establishment of UniJobs. In the past, invigilators [supervisers] have tended to be PhD students, and before UniJobs, they would be on UL’s payroll.

“People here feel that there is a lack of transparency over what UniJobs does, and there’s concern that casual workers are not entitled to benefits or sick pay.

“During my tenure as president of the graduate students’ union, I delivered a presentation to UL’s governing body, which I sat on. I told them that, although I understand that budgets have been cut since 2008, there are students who are coerced into teaching almost for free and that, despite the many good and fair academics here, this is a pattern. It is hammering morale.

“All this said, I’ve got on well with my department over the years and have been given lecturing and tutorial hours, and I’ve a good relationship with my supervisor.”


Since completing his PhD, Alan* has picked up small amounts of part-time work and occasional short-time contracts – but it’s not enough to sustain him and so he is on the dole.

“We are on insecure contracts and that discourages people from putting their head above the parapet on these issues,” he says.

“How hours are doled out among students can be arbitrary and linked to the favourites of particular staff. Whether or not it stops you from getting a permanent contract, the fear is that speaking out marks you as a potential troublemaker.”

He current works at UCC and is one of the founders of Large and Small Indignities (, which documents the voices of casual employees and postgraduate students in Irish third-level education.

Alan says lecturers can experience “the hamster wheel of precarity”, with short-term contracts heaped on top of each other.

He has picked up small amounts of part-time work and occasional short-time contracts, but it’s not enough to sustain him and so he is on the dole.

Hourly paid work limits the potential for lecturers to carry out the research work that is necessary to secure a job, so they effectively have to work for free.

“My full-time colleagues are not really colleagues, because we are not invited to department meetings or involved in shaping the intellectual and practical life of the department,” says Alan.

“You’re there to teach and ease the burden of their administrative problems. There is no continuous professional development and you are denied access to the financial resources that would enable you to go to conferences, for instance.”

Alan says that this isn’t just cossetted and privileged university graduates having a moan: it affects students as well, because they are being taught and supervised by people on hourly pay who cannot possibly put the same effort in as permanent lecturers.

“Parents think they are sending their children to institutions where the staff are incentivised and treated well, but in fact we are stressed and often on the dole. Students need to be aware that, increasingly, they are getting a cut-price education.”

While lecturers are entitled to a contract of indefinite duration after a number of years of service, this service must be unbroken. “We are invisible to colleagues,” says Alan. “We need to come together.”

*The name of the lecturer has been changed at his request

To read more stories of precarity in academia, see