The increasingly precarious life of an academic

Concern is growing about exploitative employment practices at Irish third-level colleges, and the impact on learning. Here, three academics share their stories

Some lecturers say that they are being denied job security and have for years been relying on a few hours of teaching here and there. Many, if not most, have PhDs. Ten days ago, third-level teachers protested at Maynooth University. The event was organised by Third Level Workplace Watch, a campaign group of third-level teaching staff.

They're not the only ones concerned about the direction of our universities. Last month, Trinity College Dublin's University Times* revealed that Prof Peter Coxon, head of the department of geography and a college board member, had emailed third-year geography students urging them to take action against the faculty of engineering, maths and science for "the incredible erosion of our ability to teach whole sections of a geography degree without the discipline being given any indication of future staffing. Only core staff pay is now available for departmental budgets. This will have serious implications for laboratory, field and teaching exercise."

Through its Postcards from the Periphery campaign, Third Level Workplace Watch is highlighting serious concerns about Irish universities and what they say is the increasingly precarious nature of academic work. It’s an issue across higher education: in institutes of technology, colleges, universities, private colleges and teacher training colleges.

How many lecturers are caught up in this? Nobody seems to really know. A study by Prof Andrew Loxley of Trinity’s school of education found that 80 per cent of researchers in higher education are on temporary contracts, while Third Level Workplace Watch estimates 40 per cent of teaching hours are delivered by part-timers. The Teachers’ Union of Ireland, representing institute of technology lecturers, has recorded 567 “whole-time equivalents”, representing about 2,000 part-time lecturers, in that sector alone. TUI president Gerry Quinn says the situation is “at crisis point”, with jobs regularly being advertised for one or two-year contracts only.


These are the stories of three third-level staff. Just one was willing to be identified. The other two were afraid they would be denied work if they spoke out.

Sinéad Pembroke (31)

"People assume academics are in an ivory tower, stuck in a bubble of research. Today, that couldn't be further from the truth. We actually have more in common with Dunnes Stores workers; like them, we have no secure hours and no prospect of a permanent job.

“I studied sociology. I loved teaching. I still do. Hourly paid lectures and tutors are only paid for the hours they do; the wage doesn’t include all the preparation and research work. To get a job, you need to have published in academic journals, and this doesn’t pay. You can put months into this and have your work rejected.

“As a student, I believed that if I did this, I would secure a lecturing job. Current PhD students believe the same, but they need to know that this is not necessarily the case.

"Earlier this year, Third Level Workplace Watch got more than 200 responses to our survey, which showed that precarious work is no longer just a part an academic's early career, it is their career. Permanent positions are few and far between. Since 2008 staff numbers in many university departments have halved, and there is a common reliance on hourly paid staff, who are usually postgraduate students.

“After my PhD I was teaching, but I had so few hours I had to claim the dole. This is very common now. The university might save money, but the taxpayer doesn’t. I don’t want to claim the dole. I didn’t spend over eight years in university for this.

“In the past four years, I’ve been in an hourly paid job. Then I had a few hours of tutoring and a one-year fixed-term contract, followed by another. I can’t plan for my future. Getting a few hours here and there makes it very difficult to take another job.

“An academic used to be someone who taught, researched, attended conferences, set and marked exams and spoke to students. This is being slowly stripped away. I know that not everybody will have sympathy but I ask, is this really what we want for those teaching young people? Do parents want their children taught by lecturers who feel totally undervalued? Student numbers are on the rise, as are their fees, yet staff numbers are down. Where is the money going?

"Young people are told that a PhD is the route to academia, and universities want their cash. They're not telling them they won't get a job or their most likely destinations are emigration, academic exile or, after eight to 10 years in academia, an unpaid internship. Just last month, Catherine Healy of Trinity News revealed that the college has been hiring unpaid interns for highly skilled positions since 2011. It is a big shift in workplace culture. We don't want more free work. We don't need more internships. We need real opportunities.

“I’m currently working on groundbreaking research into epilepsy on a three-year part-time contract at Trinity College. I’ll be unemployed again next year. I believe I can make a difference in my field, and I don’t want to give up. Universities know how dedicated we are, and they’re banking on us putting up with it and not walking away. They would be seriously damaged if they lost us, but as things stand, I may need to consider another career.”

Michael (41)

"I came to higher education after seven years in industry. I'd worked as a machine operator, a metal fabricator, in the security industry, as a truck driver and a taxi driver. I went to college to further my education and took on a PhD in the area of political economy. I've been teaching social science for several years now, both with the University of Limerick and the Open University. I am married with children.

“I’ve lectured on more than 10 modules at UL since 2003, and each year I have been employed on ‘casual hours’ contracts, apart from six months in 2010 when I was lecturing full-time on a teaching assistant contract). Factoring in preparation and administration time, I don’t get paid for all the work I actually do.

“I have no job security, which can be stressful, since I have dependants to support. I do not really feel part of the academic community and my contribution to the university is rarely recognised. There is no career structure for non-permanent staff, and little opportunity to develop a proper occupational identity.

“Casual-hours contacts are the most exploitative of all. Those involved get paid for face-to-face teaching hours only. None of the other duties of a lecturer’s job is paid, including prep work, advising students, setting assessments and, crucially, research. Those on short-term contracts are a little better off, but they are systematically thrown out of employment as soon as the exams are over and are generally out of work for the summer. The time they could have been spending doing research is instead spent chasing the next contract.

“In order to make a living, lecturers have to stretch themselves, sometimes between different universities. They cannot become colleagues, in any meaningful sense. If the Government wants to operate the third-level sector for the public good, it needs to invest in teaching staff. All of us working in higher education need to stop facilitating the ongoing attacks on pay and conditions and we need to address the disrespect that is currently being shown to teachers and students in higher education.

“For a long time I didn’t realise how much I was exploited, until I weighed up the time I was putting in as a lecturer compared to the money it brought in.

“People always ask why I stay with it. Can I just do something else? I stick around because, despite the challenges, I’m doing something I love doing, and luckily I have been able to earn a living outside of academia that supports my teaching.

“It is, however, difficult to watch university departments drawing in so many new PhD students, leading them to believe that there are job opportunities in academia, which simply isn’t true.”

Helene* (late 30s)

“I have been made redundant. I have had my hours cut. When I was tutoring in UCD, I had my wages reduced from €40 to €26 an hour and those hours were scattered over a number of days with a huge amount of time devoted to preparation, administration and talking to students.

“Like a lot of lecturers and tutors, I have worked in various academic jobs for more than 15 years. For many of us, the hours are so scattered as to make it impossible to take up another job. I worked a part-time job just to pay my rent.

“One of my jobs was working for a fee- paying third-level college. I would only have confirmation of a module a few weeks in advance, so I’d never know in September what courses I was teaching, what money I would have or what days the classes would be on. It made planning impossible. There are hundreds of other lecturers out there in exactly the same situation.

“The most common question I’m asked is why I stick it out. I say that it’s because you get an impression that your career is progressing. People do expect that, when they first start working in academia, there will be a period of precariousness, a time when you will be doing a lot of free or low-paid work, writing journal articles and researching until you get somewhere.

“Year after year, we think that we are doing the right thing, doing what we are told, working towards a goal and making progress. But year after year, for 10 years, we’re still at the same point.

“Sometimes, some people pick up a really decent bit of part-time work and think that they are on the up. These are people who, at this stage, have been in these situations for 20 years. It is a cycle that’s hard to get out of, and it means that people can’t make a living or pay the rent.

“Most people I know are thinking of leaving the sector. But where to go? If you specialise in humanities and social science, there are not many jobs outside the State sector. You’ve built up all this knowledge and are being told to abandon it.

“It has never been easy to be a lecturer; now it’s almost impossible. Universities have changed: they no longer want to give people secure positions, even a two- or three-year contract. We’re not asking for permanency. All we want is some stability.

* Name has been changed