Confronting the challenges of working as a contractor in higher education

Casual contracts are still a reality for many university staff. Katherine Mansfield reflects on how she coped with nine years as an hourly-paid lecturer

Katherine Mansfield is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Academic English at the University of Westminster.

Around 46 per cent of staff who teach in higher education are on casual contracts.

Contracts like this are campaigned against by university and college unions around the country.

These employment terms can be seen as a blessing or a curse, depending on the individual. Many cite issues of job insecurity – performance is constantly judged, and due to the nature of these contracts, employers can dismiss you quickly.

Some others like the flexibility of the work and how they encourage entrepreneurship allowing you to explore external opportunities and construct your own professional identity.

My name is

“Language Teacher”, “Visiting Lecturer”, “Teaching only” and “Part Time Visiting Lecturer” – these are the names of the hourly paid contracts I signed over a nine-year period whilst working as an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teacher at a London University.

For me one of the biggest challenges of working as a contractor is that you are marginalised. It was clear from the offset there was a hierarchy of teachers; “them” (those on permanent contracts) and “us” (the hourly-paid contractors) with clear boundaries between us: they had the benefit of offices, access to continuing professional development, career prospects and the possibility of applying for research grants.

We had a room where we hot desked with all the contractors at the university, and enjoyed none of the benefits above. To survive in this world, you need to be flexible, resilient, spread your wings and seek your own professional development.

Flexibility

Higher education is ever-changing. New policies are introduced, universities are restructured, and new performance measurements are announced.

During a nine-year period, I had six different line managers – which meant working under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty as each manager displayed their own management style, expectations, and promises. Some offered me the opportunity to be involved in projects giving me enhanced visibility and a greater sense of belonging, whilst others denied me anything additional to what was stated in my contract, which ultimately prevented me from growing and gaining experience.

Casual contractors need to be aware of the environment they are entering and show flexibility and resilience to the boundless changes. They are always very aware that their contract is temporary and so demonstrating a positive “can do” attitude will help them get noticed for the right reasons, and may even help secure a permanent position in the future. When teaching on short courses, there were always a couple of teachers that would not be invited back to teach due to poor student feedback or low-quality teaching.

The portfolio career

Some do like the flexibility of working as a contractor as these contracts encourage entrepreneurship allowing you to explore external opportunities and construct your own professional identity.

For me, the job insecurity and unpredictability made me spread my wings and explore external employment opportunities. I was not just a university lecturer; I started working as an examiner, freelance materials writer and as a part-time academic manager at a language school.

These jobs helped me reduce the financial pressure a casual contract brings and gave me the chance to gain new forms of professional capital – making me more autonomous, self-sufficient, experienced and confident.

Professional development

Being on a casual contract means you often have limited access to professional development. Consequently, you can fall behind with the latest developments in your field and risk not having sufficient qualifications if a permanent position becomes available.

To avoid this, I took an active role in my professional development and completed a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and EAP. I then presented my dissertation research findings at a leading conference in my field, which not only aided my development as a professional, but also helped me establish international connections. Connections which later lead to professional work opportunities abroad. I also attended free talks at different higher education institutions in the UK which gave me the opportunity to expand my local professional network.

For a 9-year period I taught an average of 20 hours a week for approximately 36 weeks a year. During this period there were only two calls for a permanent position in our department, despite the continuous use of contractors. After the first interview, I was told I was in “a very strong position”, but I wasn’t chosen because the successful candidate was pursuing a doctorate and had more research experience.

Being successful the second time meant I had finally reached my goal: to be a visible and valued professional. Since this moment, the doors have opened, and I now have access to continuous professional development, an office, research grants and much more.

What about future contractors?

There is a glimmer of hope for those now entering higher education on these contracts. Over the past seven years, there has been a slight decrease in the number of casual contracts issued in higher education – from 53 per cent in 2014 to 46 per cent in 2021.

This is a good start and there is further hope as regards terms and conditions, as the government’s Good Work Plan aims to give workers who have worked on these contracts for more than 26 weeks the right to switch to a new contract which reflects regular working hours.

This will not mean the end of casual contracts – but this is a step in the right direction.

4 responses to “Confronting the challenges of working as a contractor in higher education

  1. This is an all too familiar story and Universities had better start realising it does they’re reputation no good, not just with staff but with the paying customers and potential future customers. My son had a series of ‘personal tutors’ at University, at least the 4 Uni casual female (more common than male) contract gig working tutor being unavailable to him most of the time was the least worst.

  2. What’s so great about the modern University that anyone would want to hang around for years on casual contracts?

    I could understand it if people had no other options but a lot of people, I talk to have never even considered other jobs. I honestly don’t get it and nobody I have spoken to has every really been able to articulate to me why outside of the sink cost of getting a PhD.

  3. A very good, appropriate and accurate piece, Katherine. But what you write also refers to those of us who are research active, have PhDs and published regularly.

  4. Thanks for drawing attention to this neglected area, Katherine. Staff working on casual contracts in EAP deserve far more respect than they are commonly afforded, and there is an exigent need to address the issues you raise. I find there is sometimes an issue with intellectual snobbery around those teaching at level 3, or providing in-sessional support. However, in my opinion some of the best teaching practice around is in this very field.

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