Opportunities/precariousness, methods/mentoring

On Friday 2 May we had our first workshop of this project at City University in London. I have also been involved in a number of other ECR activities around Connected Communities.

Across this range of people and their academic identities the originality of research and the excellence in practice is very striking. However, on a more depressing note, what strikes me most is the precariousness of labour within this group of people.

Before I go on, I need to come clean, as I did with the community of ECRs at our event on Friday. I am still an ECR by the research councils (I think, within seven years of completion of my PhD anyway) however, apart from a brief stint as a civil servant, I am lucky that my academic jobs have been full time and permanent. What is more, I have been extraordinarily lucky in the support I have had from my employer and with the Connected Communities programme itself, to get a strong research profile established. So I speak from a very privileged position.

Our day at City began with talks from Jude Fransman on an emerging piece of her research with ECRs and then Ros Gill of City talking about her book chapter Breaking the Silence. In this chapter she used her background in research on the precariousness and vulnerability of labour in the cultural industries to understand practices which she evocatively described as “killing us”. Much rang true in Ros’ brief talk to us in terms of my own observations from within academia, particularly that the passion we have for our work makes us complicit in our own exploitation.

However, one participant in the workshop provocatively suggested that the precariousness that was described – moving from temporary, often part-time positions repeatedly over the course of a few years – was actually exciting and a great opportunity. In our break-out session we continued to discuss how precariousness and opportunity are quite finely balanced within the ECR’s life. In terms of opportunity, participants spoke openly that short-term contracts had allowed them to do exciting research that they did not think was possible within academia; it had allowed them to work with a diverse range of people; it was exciting and interesting; it enabled them to flit between disciplines; it enabled them to experience a range of institutions.

My wider experience of ECRs in Connected Communities reflectes this – the post-doctoral experience of the vast majority included a wide range of short-term jobs at a range of institutions. Many would best be described as “portfolio careers” – taking on a range of temporary work with employers across the arts and academia, to pay the bills and build up experience.

But I come back to my permanence, and a simple point I made at the event. I was luckily enough to slip in membership of the USS Final Salary Pension scheme four months before it was closed to new members. Unless something very disastrous happens, I’m likely to keep accumulating benefits in that scheme because of the security of my job. This security gives my whole life stability and scrutiny. For me, this is a deep part of what being a professional means.

This, however, leaves us with the conundrum of how we deliver the benefits of job diversity for individuals and organisations, with security of professional status and contract. One suggestion raised at the workshop was transposing the idea of the Civil Service fast stream into academia – essentially allowing, or encouraging, people to move around to get a diversity of experience and skills, with the guarantee of a permanent and senior role at the end of it.

Such a scheme would require changes to the structures and practices of higher education labour so brilliantly illuminated by Jude and Ros’ respective work. We need to challenge the allocation of research funding on the basis of competitive tendering; we need to make sure universities employ people fairly and pay them well; we need to redistribute work around our universities. Of course, in a job with a permanent contract in a research-intensive university it is easy to say this, and the variation in ballot results between institutions in the UCU consultative ballot on the latest employers’ pay offer speak volumes about the differing experiences across UK higher education.

One way we can challenge these structures and practices is through collective action in the unions. However, bringing it back to connecting epistemologies: We have our two “m” words that we don’t all agree on: “methods” and “mentoring”; activities related to these two words are at the heart of this project. There is also a real opportunity within Connected Communities to use the basis in radical community development methods that many of the projects derive from, to also challenge these practices. And part of that method has to be supportive, reflexive, supervision – mentoring