Nothing About Us Without Us

Researchers And Their Representatives Must Be At The Core Of The Campaign To Reform The System Which Exploits Them

It is commonly assumed that insecure, precarious work conditions are primarily found in sectors such as hospitality, care-work, construction or agriculture.  However, it is a sad reality that such conditions are endemic in a sector which most people probably think of as “privileged”.

More than two in every ten employees in Irish Higher Education are currently employed on one or more forms of atypical contracts such as; temporary, short-term or part-time.

The public perception of professional staff in Higher Education is that they are well-paid, have long holidays and enjoy a light workload.  This is erroneous on multiple levels.  In fact, many such staff, despite the years they will have spent achieving the minimum qualifications required for appointment to their positions (generally in excess of eight (8) years post Leaving Certificate level) are appointed to temporary positions which are also frequently part-time with hours set at only a fraction of a full-time post. 

In the USA such Academics and Researchers are often called “Taxi Academics” because, to make a living, they need to juggle several jobs in several different colleges and they often have to rush from one campus to another more than once a day during term time.

In Ireland there are unlikely to be as many higher education colleges in one town or city, so such staff have to supplement their incomes by claiming, if possible, social welfare.  IFUT can therefore say with certainty that many of our early career members are in receipt of salaries which are not only below the average industrial wage, they are sometimes not even at the level of the minimum wage when calculated over the full working week. 

IFUT has, for many, many years now been the primary “whistle-blower” regarding the prevalence of such exploitative and unfair work practices in Ireland’s Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

Apart from the fact that many job contracts for academics and researchers are only for a small number of hours per week, it is also the case very frequently that the duration of such contracts is very short and follow-on contracts often do not operate on a continuous basis.  In many instances we have had reason to believe that such contracts are deliberately set up not to be continuous in order to frustrate the capacity to use Irish labour law to demand permanency. 

Of course, there are also numerous cases of academics and researchers who have “permanent” contracts but the number of working hours per week is not enough to live on and they are forced to take on jobs totally unconnected with their disciplines and qualifications. Many times such contracts provide for salaries to be paid only for the actual time taken in delivering the lecture or tutorial and there is no payment or recognition of time spent preparing the class, researching new material or completing the paper-work that goes with all such jobs.  And we have not even mentioned how students suffer if their lecturers were not available to help them when they have difficulties with their studies and/or in their personal lives. 

Unions like IFUT are tired of fighting similar cases, as no case of unfair work allocation or lack of permanency appears to set a precedent, with each example of an illegal practice being regarded as a new, individual and standalone case. 

In practically every single case that IFUT deals with, the exploitation of Research staff occurs as the inevitable consequence of a system which behaves as if research “conducts itself” and that the Researcher is incidental to it.  The very absurdity of such a notion should act as a pointer to the solution to the crisis of precarity. 

That is, that institutions fostering and supporting research should do so with the mindset that this is best done by firstly adequately funding the Researcher so that the good research becomes the inevitable result of the exercise.  Currently the “cart-before-the-horse” norm is that HEIs fund the research project and assume that the researcher will somehow materialise regardless of how they are treated and paid.

The current Minister for Further & Higher Education has publicly declared that he wishes to end the scandal of precarious and low-paid employment in the FE/HE Sector.

This is music to IFUT’s ears and we have no problem in making a solemn pledge that we will work constructively and positively with any and all agencies, bodies and parties in ensuring that the Minister’s ambition is fulfilled within the shortest achievable time frame.

We have only one demand to make:  It has long been the slogan and motto of groups and cohorts who are subjected to injustices that there must be “nothing about us without us”.  This means that an inclusive, respectful and central role must be afforded to those people and their representatives who are the main victims of whatever is the injustice that is being tackled.