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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Danny Rigg

Lecturer earned as little as £5k a year on 'open ended' contracts

A university lecturer earned as little as £5k a year during nearly a decade of precarious contracts.

There's a perception of an academic as a highly paid "brain floating around", but roughly a third are on fixed-term contracts, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Bee Hughes, 34, is currently a senior lecturer in media, culture and communication at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).

Bee only started contributing income tax and paying off their student loan in 2020 when a permanent position pushed their salary high enough. Prior to this "open-ended" contract, Bee spent eight years in precarious work after completing a masters degree in 2012.

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They earned between £5k and £9k a year on short-term contracts, and even their boss wouldn't know if it'd be renewed the next semester. Bee told the ECHO: "Money was really tight at times, and I didn't really have my own money.

"Even though I had contracts, it was a couple of grand over three months. I couldn't have lived on it. It's really difficult. You can't plan, you can't think about buying a house, you haven't got a pension that you pay into with any substantial or regular amount.

"It's just absolutely draining constantly feeling like, 'Oh, I'm going to not have a job now, do I get another job, a part-time job outside of this', which isn't going to help you move your career forward, but it might help put food on the table."

Bee couldn't have survived without the support of their partner, who's "not on loads of money" themselves. Since former polytechnics like LJMU became universities from 1992, the requirements for an entry-level role in academia have increased.

One university professor based in Liverpool, who asked to be referred to by their first name Susan, had a masters degree when she started teaching at a former polytechnic just as it became a university 30 years ago. She said: "One of the big differences over that time is the rise in expectation that virtually all academic staff will have a PhD, whether or not they're on a research track or a teaching and scholarship track where they're largely teaching."

The cost of a PhD, and the precarious work taken on in the years during and after it, can be prohibitive. Bee fears "working class people are absolutely going to be pushed out of the sector". There's also a gender and ethnic factor - women, Black people and people from Asian backgrounds are more likely to be employed on fixed-term contracts.

Getting a permanent research role requires networking, publishing research and presenting at conferences, much of which falls outside those paid hours. But these are groups who often have fewer resources to sustain themselves financially for an uncertain and indefinite period of time.

They're also short of time - women in academia saw their research output and grant funding fall during the Covid-19 pandemic while men's increased, because women took on a greater burden of care in the home during lockdowns. Even without the pressure of covid restrictions, people struggle to find the time for everything their job requires.

Alongside planning and teaching four classes a week, picking up the classes of lecturers who're off sick, moderating the marking of others, and pastoral care for students that falls outside their role, Bee has to mark roughly 150 assignments each week. The target for delivering grades and feedback to students is 15 working days, regardless of whether it's a multiple choice exam or a 4,000-word essay.

Bee is expected to complete this in 20 minutes for each assignment. That would take six, eight-hour days to complete if Bee had no breaks and no other tasks. But reading them and providing constructive feedback can take double that amount of time, according to Bee, and that's coming from their own personal hours.

The 34-year-old feels there's a "real disconnect between time allocated for tasks in the universities, and the actual time it takes". Bee said: "I had three weeks off work last year with stress, so I'm trying to pace myself now, but it's still difficult. This is our second week of teaching this term and I'm already absolutely shattered. I'm already behind in my marking.

"I feel a little bit crap. I could finish my marking completely on time, but it will mean that I will work every evening, probably, and most of the weekend to do it. And we're on action short of strike, which is really demonstrating that we can't fit our jobs into 35 hours a week."

They added: "It's really hard to draw those firm lines between work and not work. There have been times in the last few years where work just feels like it's taken over every minute you have. It's grim. Even with us doing action short of strike and trying to stick to working to contract at the moment, you still don't really feel like you can do much in an evening. You come home and you're absolutely drained. Like, my Christmas decorations are still up."

Roughly 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents academic and support staff at higher education institutions, will walk out at 150 universities over 18 days in February and March. The strike, starting on Wednesday, February 1, is part of a dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions, including casualisation of the academic workforce.

Both Bee and their partner are members of the UCU, so both will be losing income for the days they're on strike. Bee said: "We're going to take a huge hit, and be eating lots of toast."

In Merseyside, it will affect LJMU, the University of Liverpool, Hope University, Liverpool School of Tropical, Medicine, Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), Edge Hill University. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "The university sector in the UK has over £40bn sitting in reserves, but instead of using that vast wealth to deliver a cost-of-living pay rise and reverse devastating pension cuts, university vice-chancellors would rather force staff to take strike action and see campuses shut down."

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