I’ve recently left my position as an hourly paid lecturer at the University of Birmingham to work for the outreach and education charity The Brilliant Club. This is a choice I made for many reasons, which included personal, social and professional reasons, a desire to make university access fairer for all, my enjoyment of teaching and my firm belief in the mission of the charity. But one of the reasons that has made my transition from academia to outreach so painless was that I was leaving a zero-hour HPL contract that made it necessary for me to have three other jobs to support myself.
It’s worth stating at this point that The University of Birmingham responded to the Guardian article on its use of zero-hour contracts that ran last year to state that it was a fair employer and that it operated a policy of transparency. They never claimed that my HPL lecturer contract was anything that it was not. I knew it was zero-hour, casual work. No one higher above me in the department asked me not to talk about it with my students. As far as I am aware, I did nothing against the conditions of my employment or against the university’s own policy of transparency in talking about this.
Still, we don’t often have conversations about employment with those we are employed to teach. I remember a tutor who was so generous with their time with me at undergraduate, who helped me with Masters applications, who supported me so much during my final year and who was one of a group of incredible teachers who inspired me to carry on and study a PhD. I remember that she used to email me at midnight and I would think “Academia is so glamorous – clearly, you can get up whenever you want and work the hours that suit you”. I was a night-owl back then, and it seemed only natural that someone teaching at the University of Oxford would have proper, full employment. What I didn’t know was that this tutor was on a part-time stipendiary contract and had to take another job to support themselves. And I didn’t find that out until this year when I started asking the people who taught me if they thought they were getting a fair deal.
So, in the interest of openness, I told my students that I was leaving, and that I was on a HPL contract that meant that in order to support myself – while living with an employed partner in Birmingham – I had to work three additional jobs. At first, I thought the reaction was pretty indifferent, but the next week when I went back I was heartened by the level of compassion and support from the undergraduates who were spending over nine thousand pounds a year on their education. It seemed reasonable to them to think that a significant proportion of that was going to their teachers.
These teaching jobs are what they are, and this is the nature of early career employment for many early career researchers. I’d love to hear from other people who have told their students about their employment situation (probably only safe to do if you, like me, are about to scoot on out!) or anyone with any thoughts on this. More anon!