Lena Wånggren 

Conferencing while casualised: on privilege and precarity in UK higher education

Many academics say that if there is one thing they need, in a marketised university system which demands constant productivity and quick results, it is more time – time to read, to write, to think, to do research, to attend conferences, to rest. But for an increasing number of precariously employed academics, what they (we) need is proper pay and stability. Casualisation, that is to say favouring of insecure contracts over permanent or tenure-track ones, is one of the main features of the marketisation of higher education. As figures from the UK higher education union University and College Union show, around half (50 percent) of all academic staff in UK universities are employed on insecure contracts (University and College Union 2016). Many academics work up to five jobs at different workplaces in order to make ends meet. A survey of members carried out by the University and College Union in 2015 showed that a significant numbers of academics on precarious contracts struggled to get by:

  • 17 percent said that they struggled to pay for food.
  • One third (34 percent) said that they struggled to pay rent or mortgage repayments.
  • 36 percent said that they struggled to pay household bills like fuel, electricity, water and repairs.

One respondent stated: ‘I especially dread the summer and Easter periods as I have no idea how I will pay the rent’ (University and College Union 2015; see also Bryson and Barnes 2000; Lopes and Dewan 2015). Traditionally a well-paid and secure profession, many academics on precarious contracts – often paid by the hour – are stuck on the lowest academic pay grade, and without knowing where they will live the next month, or how to pay their rent.

In addition to ever-hardening border controls and travel restrictions, as well as caring commitments, or disability concerns, precarious employment and its concurrent low and/or unstable pay can effectively work as a ban on attending conferences. Three of my closest friends and academic colleagues had to leave the UK as they did not make the required £35,000 a year (how many people do?) for staying in the country. While my own passport privilege makes border-crossings easy, precarious employment conditions hinder the planning ahead and the financial security required for many conferences. Considering the themes of some recent FWSA conferences, this disconnect seems even more jarring: a few years ago the conference focus was on activism, and activist groups were encouraged to apply. My own activist group had, at that time, around £100 in the bank, money which we had scraped together by donations and which we needed to print flyers and other material; we would not be able to pay around £200 plus travel and accommodation for attending a conference. The 2017 conference theme is ‘Making space for feminism in the neo-liberal academy’, but there are many feminist academics who will not be able to enter this space due to financial precarity.

Most academic conferences still seem to operate on an understanding that academics either have a full-time permanent job or are studying towards one: as a permanent member of staff one can hopefully claim research expenses, or have a high enough salary to afford fees and travel, while most conferences rightly have a reduced registration fee for students or PhD researchers, sometimes offering travel grants. But a steadily increasing part of the feminist academic community – the ‘academic precariat’ as they (we) have been called – are left out. Órla Murray (2017) describes precarious academic working conditions as the ‘elephant in the room’ at conferences, recounting several occasions when attempts to raise the topic have been shut down. As Murray notes, for many precariously employed feminist academics, ‘their contract status is a present concern in the conference space, regardless of whether or not they bring it up. … They arrive at the conference worried about money and desperate to get the most out of it’ (Murray 2017).

How do we ensure that also precariously employed feminist academics can take part in the knowledge exchange and meeting space that conferences make possible? In addition to offering support to colleagues affected by border controls and travel restrictions, consideration should be given to the financial situation of many colleagues (of course, many colleagues are affected by both tightened border controls and financial precarity). Some conferences are already doing this: offering free registration to all attendees, or a reduced rate not only to students but to casualised and unemployed people. A few years back a large international conference set up a ‘solidarity fund’ which financially well off academics could put money into, and which financially insecure attendees could apply to.

Higher education is a place of privilege, and academic conferences are places of privilege. But we can try to make these spaces just a little bit more inclusive, within the parameters given. If attending conferences is possible only for certain groups of feminists, or feminist academics, this will affect – in my view, negatively – the ways in which feminist scholarship takes shape, and what kinds of feminist knowledge is produced.

Works Cited

Bryson, Colin and Nikki Barnes. 2000. ‘The casualisation of employment in higher education in the United Kingdom.’ In Academic Work and Life: What it is to be an Academic, and How this is Changing, ed. Malcolm Tight, 187-241. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

Lopes, Ana and Indra Dewan. 2015. ‘Precarious pedagogies? The impact of casual and zero hour contracts in Higher Education.’ Journal of Feminist Scholarship 7/8: 28-42.

Murray, Órla Meadhbh. 2017. ‘Precarity in the Ivory-Tower – Bringing Up Working Conditions at Conferences.’ Conference Inference: Blogging the World of Conferences. 22 May 2017. https://conferenceinference.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/precarity-in-the-ivory-tower-bringing-up-working-conditions-at-conferences/

University and College Union. 2015. Making ends meet: The human cost of casualisation in post-secondary education. London: UCU. http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/7279/Making-ends-meet—the-human-cost-of-casualisation-in-post-secondary-education-May-15/pdf/ucu_makingendsmeet_may15.pdf

University and College Union. 2016. Precarious Work in Higher Education: A snapshot of insecure contracts and institutional attitudes. London: UCU. http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/7995/Precarious-work-in-higher-education-a-snapshot-of-insecure-contracts-and-institutional-attitudes-Apr-16/pdf/ucu_precariouscontract_hereport_apr16.pdf

Lena Wånggren is a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and at Edinburgh Napier University. Her research interests include gender and women’s writing, nineteenth-century literature, feminist pedagogy, and the medical humanities. Currently on her sixth fixed-term contract, she also spends time doing trade union work, especially trying to assist colleagues in precarious employment.