…no-one really wants to know the true answer.

At least that’s what my fiend said when I told him a few months ago that I’d decided to be honest about my precarity.

Well, maybe people don’t, but maybe we should tell them more often.

One of the difficult situations that I face when attending conferences is answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ In academic circles, this rarely means what it would appear to mean. The answer is not Longridge, because the question is not where do you live, but where do you work? I’ve written before about being ‘academically homeless’ (having no institution to support my research, or give me access to a library and essential research databases), but I now face a slightly different problem: do I tell people I’m from Lancaster, where I currently do most work; Southampton, where I am a visiting fellow; or Liverpool Hope, where I have worked, albeit only for a few hours, for the longest period? None of these contracts is permanent. At the time of writing, my only ongoing position is that of Honorary Research Fellow at Lancaster – an unpaid post.

This is no way to live. I have little or no money coming in over the summer. All three of the paid jobs have come to an end with no guarantee that there will be any work for me anywhere in September. It does nothing to improve my mental health, and makes the summer a very stressful period.

What’s more, over the summer I’m working for free. It’s not as if I can stop and take an unpaid break, spending weeks on end with my children (much as I might like to). No. Instead, I’m frantically trying to finish articles that have been gathering dust for too long and work on book number 2, trying to build the publication record that might, just might, help me land a permanent job.

I know I’m not alone, either in feeling this stress or in my increasing anger at the system. Twitter recently went mad when a 3 year cover position at a major university was advertised, blatently stating that the successful applicant’s pay would be suspended over the summer months because there was no teaching – as if the preparation and admin (and the poor mug’s own research) stopped over the summer too. And woe betide that successful applicant if they wanted to pay rent or a mortgage during that time, or if they had the audacity to want to eat…

No-one that I have spoken to outside academia can believe that someone with a PhD can be employed in a university for just over £15 an hour and earn only a few thousand pounds for teaching on 4 different courses at one institution. 2018-19 is the first year I’ve paid tax on my earnings since completing my PhD, and even now

  • I have only just passed the Lower Earnings Threshold and
  • I have only reached this point through topping up my work for 4 different PAYE employers in the year with extra freelance work.

I’ve got three children to support, and they are rapidly approaching their own entry into the university system. So while I teach other people’s children and help them get their degrees, I don’t know if I can afford for my own to go to university. I have no pension to speak of, so my future isn’t looking that bright either.

The system is broken. While it can get away with employing lecturers on zero hours contracts, it will, because it’s cheap. And those of us at the bottom end of the food chain can’t afford to turn down the crumbs that are offered.

The system is broken. There are lovely people at all of the universities that I’ve taught at, and none of this is either their fault or, realistically, something that they as individuals can hope to change. I know that they feel bad about it too. And I know that many of them have done their best to ensure that I get any extra bits of work that might help me out.

But I’m fed up of pretending that everything is okay. That I’m not being taken advantage of by a system which is happy to bleed me dry working for hours to prepare courses that I might only teach once, but doesn’t value me enough to pay me through Christmas, Easter and summer, or if I’m sick (which I never have been – who as an ECR can afford to be ill?!), and will throw me to the wind the moment it’s convenient.

So if you ask me where I’m from, forgive me if I give you a blunt answer.

Nowhere really.