Dr Kevin Veale, lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies at Massey University discusses the impact of insecurity on his ability to plan, on career progression, and what the tertiary education sector gains from worker security.
I have been teaching at a university since 2005 during my postgraduate studies and I finished my doctorate in 2012. I recently moved from Auckland to Wellington for work and I’ve been working under fixed-term agreements in tertiary education for 15 years.
Work was the only reason behind my family’s decision to move from Auckland to Wellington. My fixed-term agreement ended in Auckland and I was willing to move across the country for a one-year agreement because it was better than nothing. My family knew that travelling was likely to happen as part of an academic career, internationally or locally, so it was not a surprise, but it was still a major upheaval.
New Zealand is a small country, with relatively few universities and therefore fewer options for people like me. If I don’t secure permanent employment at one university, it is far from guaranteed I can simply find it at another. That uncertainty has a whole lot of knock-on consequences that affect myself, my family and all of us faced with the uncertainty of insecure work.
The process of applying for academic positions is a long and uncertain one as the end of a fixed-term position looms. I’ve applied for jobs which have taken up to a year for a decision to be made. When working on a one-year fixed-term agreement, this has meant that I have been perpetually applying for positions both with my current employer, and with outside institutions. I feel as though I’m perpetually living and working with ‘one foot out the door’ because to assume the work will continue, would be to put my family, career and livelihood at risk.
My experience is not unique and is all too common across the sector. It limits those affected and puts us at risk in a number of ways.
I’m working 40 hours a week, in theory, but between constantly apply for jobs, increasing my visibility as an academic, and working on increasing my research output, I’m working much more than I am contracted for.
During the last PBRF round I mentioned that my record reflected a time when I only had a research active position for less than half of the PBRF period. I had helpful and well-meaning colleagues asking whether that was relevant. Why would that matter?
It matters because half of the PBRF period I was self-funded, and the research I had produced was what I could manage off my own back and in my ‘spare time’, and of course that limited what I could achieve. But I was also proud of what I had produced, because this was what I had managed despite the fact my contract didn’t support this extra work, and despite the uncertainty of my position.
Imagine what I could achieve if I was supported by the institution, if I had been safe.
Of course, the institution loses out too. The institution must spend time and money to replace those working on fixed-term agreements, often on short notice. The pool of people willing to work limited term is lower. The institution is hiring two-thirds of a person at best by making it necessary that we are constantly having to look elsewhere for work.
When people leave from fixed-term jobs their institutional knowledge, their contacts, their practical engagement with day to day problems are all lost. Instead, we should be encouraging staff to feel secure in positions in which they can really learn. This would be a huge benefit to staff, students and to the institution.
When people feel safe and secure in work, when stress is alleviated and when people can look to the future, they feel more motivated to contribute and to reach their full potential in their chosen profession.