Against unpaid research work


According to a recent article, Australia’s academics “were already among the world’s most stressed”.

Workloads are out of control. COVID-19 impacts on the university sector include retirements, redundancies, rising precarity, restructuring, and this sits alongside decades of underfunding. In this environment, we need to address the amount of unpaid work being done – not just in teaching and service (overload in those areas does tend to be talked about, at least) but in research.

We should think seriously about outlining maximum expectations for research, to pair with the (often rising) minimums that our institutions set.

To flag the position I’m writing from: I hold a full time, ongoing position as a Lecturer (Level B) on a balanced profile (that is, my job is ostensibly 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service), and my job is not under immediate threat. Folks like me are a diminishing, and privileged, cohort. I am also privileged in other ways: I am cis and white and anglo, I don’t have to contend with the increased expectations and burdens that the structurally racist academy puts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars and people of colour. In this piece, I am speaking from this privileged position to others in similar positions, to urge us to consider how solidarity with the precariat might involve addressing overwork and hyper-productivity in research among ongoing staff.

It is common for teaching work to be counted (however imperfectly), and for some limits or caps to be set (acknowledging that many of us work beyond those caps, especially in the last 18 months or so). In addition to an overall cap, there may be other checks, such as a limit to the number of consecutive teaching weeks / trimesters, sessional funding to assist with high student numbers, expectations of periodic teaching relief (e.g. sabbaticals – I acknowledge that these are hard/er to get).

Performance expectations are also tempered. We are all required to be competent, but we are not all required to be nationally or internationally renowned teachers to be considered satisfactory. Measures of teaching load and time are very imperfect and there are often conflicts over teaching allocations, sessional pay and underpayment but, ultimately, there is at least some effort to control this workload, and some way for me to name and discuss teaching overload with my supervisor and union.

While teaching time may be a little easier to count and compare than research time, the accounting for, and capping of, teaching arguably reflects the undervaluing of teaching in universities. It is often treated as an inconvenience or distraction from the real work of research and/or executive leadership, and therefore must be limited / avoided. My research doesn’t really cost any money, and yet I am encouraged to get research funding in order to pay a precarious colleague to do my teaching for me.

Research is treated very differently. According to my Enterprise Agreement (the legally binding collective agreement between my employer and employees at my organisation, stipulating key working conditions), my 40% teaching load equates to 690 hours per annum. The unstated corollary is that my 40% research load would also equate to 690 hours per annum. There are limits to what I can achieve in that 690 hours (approximately 2 days/week), but those limits are unspoken, unmonitored, and unprotected.  There are minimum expectations for research income, outputs, and performance on metrics but, unlike in teaching, there are no maximums.

What could be achieved in that 690 hours would vary across discipline, be shaped by collaborations, experience, methods used, luck, the always capricious Reviewer 2, etc. But it’s notable that we don’t even try to set limits – perhaps because the expectation is so normalised that we do more than we could reasonably do, reasonably well, in ~2 days/week. I have been advised, in mentoring and career development sessions organised by my employer, that to succeed, I must treat research as a hobby or calling. As such, I should do it out of hours, at home, in the early mornings or late evenings, on the weekend, when I’m on leave. I love doing research, but if it was a hobby, I would do it very differently. The outputs would be very different. I wouldn’t be chasing highly competitive Australian Research Council or industry funding, and the work may well be largely illegible and antipathetic to the university.

To repeat: I am expected and advised by my employer to do research (up to 40% of my job) in unpaid overtime.

Because they’re not paying properly for it, they see no need to limit it. In my field, I couldn’t publish 15 papers a year unless I worked extremely long days and weekends, half-arsed and neglected my responsibilities in teaching, supervision, service, and to my kin and community. But even if I did, literally no one in charge of workload management would tell me, “Gee, Nat, that seems like a bit much, slow down”. No one would ask how I squeezed that into my 2 days a week. Certainly no one would tell me that clearly I’d been overloaded this year, so I wouldn’t be researching at all next year. In fact, I’d probably be told, “Fine, but why is your research income so low? Why aren’t you doing more overseas/industry collaborations? You should be recruiting more PhD students.” Further, expectations creep, not just for me but for others at my level (and those trying to break into my level). Other Level Bs (or folk applying for Level B jobs) will be compared to my outrageous productivity, skewing bench-marking and disadvantaging those who are unwilling and/or unable to do unpaid academic work.

In February 2020, when I wrote the twitter thread this article is based on, I received pushback from academics who felt that caps on research “might limit ambitious ECRS” and those who want to “aim higher“. Insofar as I am writing about those in ongoing positions: good. Our ambitions and aspirations should be tempered by care and solidarity with precarious colleagues. This means finding ways to rein in unpaid overtime, and not pretending that our choices are neutral or have no impact on others. If universities want to achieve the same level of performance they’ve been achieving via overtime, we must insist they pay people to do the work, which would mean new positions, new hires.

I wrote those tweets when my chronic illnesses were flaring up, and when I was grappling with career failures linked to caring responsibilities, but before the impact of COVID-19 on higher education (and the federal Morrison Government’s dismal response) wrought their damage on the sector. It is more apparent than ever that academic work cultures and structures are heterosexist, racist, and ableist, that they ignore the other responsibilities we might have to the communities we work and think with, and harm our ability to care for ourselves and others.

I am not asking you, as an individual, to do less and bear reprisals and disciplinary actions alone. I am asking you to join together to organise collectively against unpaid work, and for slower, more deliberative and ethical modes of academic production. There are already those engaged in this fight – unionists (especially precarious unionists) lead the fight against unpaid work on multiple fronts, and others are advocating against hyper-productivity on funding panels, and in modelling slow and care-full work practices.

Escalating expectations for productivity are also harmful to our thinking, our bodies, our relationships, our actual hobbies, and our planet. Across all spheres of life, we need to slow down, and be more thoughtful and intentional about what we do and how we work.

Higher education in Australia is in crisis, and the workforce is clinically knackered. Enough has got to be enough.

Author Bio: Natalie Osborne is a Lecturer in the School of Engineering and Built Environment at Griffith University, where she teaches and researches in environmental planning and critical geography.