This essay was originally published anonymously on the website of the Manchester Anti-Precarity Network in 2020. Many other precarious members of staff in higher education have had far worse experiences than anything described below, but all of our stories reflect aspects of the same system which is always profoundly damaging, no matter now it plays out on an individual level
I have just had a tooth extracted, and I blame academic precarity. Not because universities are (yet) harvesting the teeth of their workers, but because working in higher education has meant years of temporary residence in various cities and various countries, a permanent shortage of money, and a constant need to produce unspecified amounts of work: as much as you can, as fast as you can. I had taken very seriously the instructions of my primary school teachers to look after my teeth, but for years I simply hadn’t been able to see a dentist. When I could finally register with a practice, my first appointment was cancelled due to the coronavirus lockdown. My first ever serious toothache started a few weeks later.
The precarity had, on the other hand, been going on for much longer. I was privileged enough to be able to pay for the privilege of my first few precarious positions in higher education. A ‘visiting’ fellowship in a prosperous German city came with a stipend which didn’t cover the actual cost of living for a month in that city. An ‘early career’ fellowship at a UK research institute ‘paid’ me for six months via expenses claims. I diligently kept receipts for every weekly shop and lunchtime sandwich as if trapped on some interminable business trip, but the receipt from the barbers proved to be a claim too far for the finance department: no haircuts allowed in the precarious university.
Between such positions I did all sorts of jobs to keep myself afloat: exam invigilation, calling university alumni to solicit donations, some translations and proofreading, some private tutoring. But the difficulty was not so much the getting of money as the dilemma posed by every penny earned from activity other than research and teaching: if I ‘stopped’ to earn money, I was falling behind in the race to develop the kind of professional profile which might (either within the next few years, or not at all) open a way out of this situation; if I didn’t ‘stop’ to earn, I would soon be out of the game altogether.
A one-year reprieve from this predicament came via a rare opportunity: a university (in Germany) was paying a few ‘early career’ academics such as myself for teaching on an hourly basis—always and everywhere a below-minimum wage job when the actual number of hours needed for preparation, marking and supporting students are taken into account—but was also willing to provide a simultaneous research stipend which made the ‘job’ (legally it was something else) a viable proposition. Every month I collected a little pocket money for full-time work designing and delivering modules which met the rather specific needs of students at a German university who often couldn’t speak or read German (I was there to provide for exchange students, in part), whilst the stipend afforded me the financial freedom to squeeze every last drop of time out of evenings and weekends on a research project which fortunately bore some fruit.
Alongside this there were of course the endless job and fellowship applications, for a kaleidoscope of positions which paid a pittance in money in a whole truckload in fake kudos. At some of the world’s leading educational establishments there were opportunities to be some sort of short-term visiting fellow—conveniently assumed to be ‘visiting’ from an equally well-padded institution, rather than from the damp and chilly land of unemployment—and to be an ‘early career fellow’ in a ‘career’ which had so far not included a single actual job and with no prospect of anything more than another stage in my ‘early’ career beyond this next short-term position.
The precarious academic is supposed to be working their passage towards a permanent position, but in reality you are just part of the army of stevedores who do a huge proportion of the work that needs to be done in higher education under terms and conditions which exploit first this fiction, then you: your mind, your body, your time; years of your life. ‘Jobs’ which would appear scandalous elsewhere are veneered with the prestige of a major university and the comfortable surroundings of university towns. You are not ‘early’ in your career, you are fighting tooth and nail for a career which barely exists and may very well end at any time. The one certainty is that this end will not come before the system has run up a debt to you which it will never repay.
These lies do not have a single point of origin. They have grown with the problem they try to hide, because the problem is too ugly to contemplate. Precarity is a miserable way of organising any form of work: for skilled work which requires long-term planning, it gains an additional dimension of farce. There is no grand instigator of this black comedy, no one pulling the strings. It is the farce and fraudulence into which we descend when we forget ourselves, when we loose touch with the bigger picture of who we are and begin to act on our momentary impulses as if they have no longer-term consequences.
Universities feel so free to exploit the abundance of eager would-be teachers and researchers that they hardly notice themselves doing so by all sorts of easy, noiseless means: people doing productive, original work can be classified as ‘students’ for financial purposes (because, in a higher and more noble sense, we are students of one sort or another); short-term employment is excused by the supposed exigencies of specialisation; the risks inherent in planning a workforce in the uncertain business of research can be pushed onto the narrow shoulders of the researchers themselves, whilst the broad shoulders of the gargantuan institution collect the rewards when research pays off. Focused on day-by-day competition amongst themselves, universities do not have to consider the longer-term consequences of courses of action in which they all participate because collectively they have no competition: there are currently no other structures in human society capable of producing the kinds of knowledge which universities create. They may degrade themselves in their scramble to get on top of one another, but as long as all degrade themselves equally the scramble continues much as before.
I am currently hunkered down on a small island in this storm. One of my better options worked out: a three-year research fellowship lies at the most sheltered end of the vast archipelago of precarity. Even so, ever since the first three months of this fellowship had passed, its end date is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night. It is an ‘early career’ fellowship, and I spend my days outwardly working towards the future and inwardly preparing myself for the likelihood that this fellowship will be the end of my career. Every time that the music stops, there is a strong chance that you will find yourself too far from a chair. There is ultimately little that you can do to improve your chances, you just have to take those that you find. At least I eventually managed to see dentist; a shame that it was a few weeks too late. Better luck next time?
23 June 2020