Ways to help


How do you help and support your precariat colleagues?

At Research Whisperer, we engage a lot with issues of precarity and casualisation. We think it’s a huge issue that needs urgent address in academia, and it’s a global problem.

We were recently invited to speak to casuals at an NTEU Victoria event where I talked about maintaining a consistent researcher profile while being part of the precariat, and Jonathan spoke on how to get research funding as a casual. We acknowledge from the start that while we focus on individual strategy and knowledge the issues of precarity are systemic and heavily embedded in our sector.

One of the things that I wanted to write about after the event was how those of us in more secure employment can help in this bleak landscape of increasing casualisation, and exclusionary and inequitable institutional dynamics.

Those who are in casual or fixed-term appointments are less likely and able to advocate within the academic system. Short (often multiple, simultaneous) contracts and insecurity mean that it is difficult to build momentum in fighting for equitable conditions and opportunities. That is why actions like joining a union (like the NTEU in Australia) can shift the action to an organisation that has more traction and resources in the system. The NTEU and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) created the Uni Casual website to inform and agitate for change.

Just recently, universities in my state (Victoria, Australia) published data that shows the extent of casualisation in our universities – it’s quite shocking. These figures are for those on casual contracts, and doesn’t count those on short fixed-term contracts (who I would also consider part of the precariat workforce).

Inger Mewburn wrote about concrete things that full-time academics can do to help their casual colleagues, and Eli Thorkelson wrote this excellent thread about how stably-employed scholars can support their precariously employed peers.

Here are some examples from their pieces:

INGER: “Make sure casuals get paid on time: every time I hire someone, I have to be on top of people higher in the management chain, and HR, to make sure the process is moved forward quickly. People should not have to start work without being paid – but it’s sadly routine. Oh, and while you’re at it – don’t take up their time with corridor meetings and ‘quick catch ups’ that amount to another hour or two of unpaid work each week. It’s not cool.”

ELI: “Do invite precarious folks to come talk about their work. A lot of it is really important, solid, serious research that just happens not to be anchored to a legible title. (Pay up front for their travel.)”

“Treat every academic administrator, service worker, IT worker, student affairs worker, campus gardener, bookkeeper, student worker, intern, TA, postdoc, etc, as if they were truly your colleague and deserved your full respect. Make sure other faculty people do this too.”

I am in a secure role right now, having had a series of fixed-term and casual contracts previously. I’m fully on board with what Inger and Eli suggest, and would add the following:

  • Join the union and/or support union actions addressing casualisation in the sector. It’s extremely difficult to get cut-through with individual cases or voices, but we are all stronger together, whether we’re casual or more stably employed academics.
  • Share information and strategies with your precariat colleagues on how they can work the system to their advantage. Be ready to listen and learn about specific situations. You’re in a position to know the ins and outs more thoroughly – how can we make sure our casual colleagues are getting what they’re entitled to and can position themselves well for good opportunities?
  • Advocate for precariat voices in the running of our scholarly organisations and committees (with appropriate payment for their hours – they should not be doing it for free). This could be conferences, social events, and departmental committees (teaching and research). Think through the composition of ‘student’ or ‘staff’ committees: which voices are not at the table?
  • Where you can, lead by example when it comes to supporting precariat colleagues.
    • If you’re organising a conference, ensure there’s provision for concession fees, waived registrations, or travel bursaries. Try to minimise the expenses for those who may already be travelling to the event by setting up a billeting system (my research network colleagues who are currently organising AAI 7 are doing this).
    • Advocate for precariat colleagues to be named researchers on grants if at all possible. This is an area from which casual and short fixed-term contract colleagues are routinely excluded, yet it can mean a lot for a person’s career if the grant gets up.
    • Don’t assume that casual colleagues aren’t in a position to take up certain opportunities – always ask.
    • If you’re running a research network or group, always err on the side of being inclusive when it comes to sharing information and offering membership (e.g. heavily discounted or free membership to casual/sessional staff).

This post on how to be an ally for equitable faculty workloads is a good one to read alongside mine, Inger’s, and Eli’s posts.

Everything I’ve covered in this post is part of what I consider being a good colleague is all about. Everyone is under pressure with their workloads and deadlines. Everyone. And there are many who choose to do things for their colleagues because they can.

One thing I’ve done recently that I’ve never done before is to offer to cover a few registrations for concession researchers (unsalaried / casual / students) at a research network conference later this year. I chose to do this because I couldn’t offer any billet space but wanted to be able to support emerging researchers and the conference overall. I flagged the contribution with no strings attached (the conference committee could decide who they wanted to offer them to), and am very much looking forward to hearing about the wonderful new research that’s taking place in the field. It won’t change the world, but it’ll hopefully mean the conference has a more diverse range of voices and research represented.