Precarious work, precarious research?

Nov 3, 2020

Hayley Bennett
Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Edinburgh

In this blog, Hayley Bennett, University of Edinburgh, reflects on the collaborative turn in academic research and the tensions with precarious employment practices.

The problematic rise of fixed-term and precarious contracts in academia is a common discussion in universities across the UK. It featured prominently in the recent UCU strike actions in and is a topic of major concern as universities engage in organisational reforms in light of the current covid-19 context. UCU data on the UK from 2018/2019 found that “around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the sector remain on fixed-term contracts, with many more living precariously on contracts which are nominally open-ended but which build in redundancy dates”. UK universities are not alone in their growing use of precarious employment nor in the increasing concerns regarding their association with; race, class, and gender inequalities and organisational inefficiencies. A common and major concern in the academic literature (and highly visible in social media discussions online) is how such employment conditions shift the temporalities of work for researchers, whose careers and lives become unstable and uncertain (see Bozzon et al, 2017 on precarious work in Italian universities). Furthermore, researchers note multiple issues about the manner in which universities and funding bodies construct research employment through “projectification” (Ylijoki, 2016) leading to employment that is often “organised in a hasty and informal manner…heavily shaped by project conditions…and dominated by short-term thinking” (Herschberg, et al 2018). Project structures shape not just the quality of employment and working conditions, but also create a long term effect on knowledge production. 

Precarious work and research quality

The issue of the relationship between precarious work and research quality is both timely and necessary, due what Richard Brunner and I describe as the ‘collaborative turn’: the increasing expectation for social research to involve collaboration, participation or co-production with non-academic partners or across institutional boundaries (Bennett and Brunner, 2020). Collaborative, participatory, and action researchers have long reflected on; the demanding and consuming nature of research collaborations, the importance of developing rapport and trust, and the need to understand contextual features (Berghold and Thomas, 2012). Importantly, Boser (2006, 10) noted that the “movement toward participatory research approaches brings new sets of social relations for research and, as such, presents a new set of ethical challenges”. One such ethical challenge centres on the precarious employment conditions that underpin our research yet conflict with collaborative knowledge production and participatory practices. Because, as Bondy (2013; 586) notes “the ways in which one enters and remains in a field setting reflect the research setting as much as they do the research itself”. What if we enter the field/co-create a research setting whilst not knowing how long we can participate in it? Can we truly seek to build trusting and ethical relationships with research partners when we have one eye on the clock, on the jobs board, on the next move, on leaving the academy? Are we co-creating research activities that we might not be able to complete? Some precarious researchers have sought to manage such tensions as best they can at the individual level (Raynor, 2019 discusses structural barriers and participatory research), but there are limits to individual ‘fixes’ to structural tensions.

Collaborating in good faith?

It’s time for the pressured, short-term nature of social research funding and associated employment conditions to be at the forefront of social policy research debates. This is particularly important where researchers seek to partner with groups experiencing poverty or inequality, and charity/third sector organisations whose time and engagement we claim to value. The collaborative turn, which often proposes researching the most difficult and unequal aspects of society by working with third sector partners or creating participatory community groups, appears to assume a level of stability and support that nurtures and enables ethical and pragmatic relational practice. Yet in reality most researchers operate on short-term funding and highly precarious employment contracts, sometimes renewed at very short-notice, or with end-dates out-of-sync with collaborative outputs or partner ambitions. Third sector and public sector partners also operate with somewhat unstable income streams meaning academia’s over-use of fixed-term contracts increases the complexity of research collaborations. For example, Glasgow City Council’s £87m reduction to their Communities Fund, affected many welfare rights and legal agencies and third sector organisations that engage in collaborative research in some of the least well-off neighbourhoods in the city. Academia’s uncritical use of precarious employment contracts for researchers collaborating in these contexts raises fundamental ethical considerations.

If we consider collaboration (underpinned by ethical and relational practice) as practice that all social researchers must now learn and utilise, we must therefore question short-term expectations embedded within existing conceptions of the ‘right’ academic career and best researchers. Notably, expectations that researchers should regularly move universities and cities as part of an academic career. Short-term and precarious employment conditions can contradict the main principles of doing collaborative research well by encouraging some researchers to collaborate solely for short-term extractive gain. Relationships with research partners can also weaken and disappear if researchers seek to achieve such hyper-mobility.

In a new article in Qualitative Research Journal, Richard Brunner and I touch on some of these issues to examine multi-agency collaborations, highlighting the importance of relational work, and collaborative ethics in practice. We demonstrate that such work requires skills, training, and resources. We note the tensions between pre-determined research funding structures, precarious employment practices, and collaboration. Such critical reflections are perhaps timely as some university responses to covid-19 have focused on cutting jobs, hours, and roles for fixed-term staff and others employed in precarious/atypical forms. It is essential that social policy researchers start to bring together their questions on research quality, knowledge production, and collaboration, with the structures that create and sustain problematic precarious employment.

Bio:

Dr Hayley Bennett is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. She uses collaborative research approaches to examine and address policy and programme responses to labour market inequalities and poverty. New article on collaborative research available here

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