Andreas Papamichail By: Andreas Papamichail
Lecturer in Global Health & International Relations
View profile and Diary

13 May 2020 : Precarity and coronavirus

I felt quite a bit of trepidation ahead of writing my first post: Do I write something personal and profound? Searing and insightful political analysis? (Whether I could execute either of these is another matter entirely). In the end, I’ve settled on something in between as I realised that the trepidation I felt is caused precisely by my personal situation which is emblematic of what so many—including contributors on this site, no doubt—are feeling and experiencing at the moment, namely the uncertainty that comes with precarious employment. I want to focus specifically on precarious employment within academia because I know what this feels like (with the caveat that this is a privileged precarity, at least in my situation).

First, for a quick bit of context for those not working in or familiar with UK higher education. A majority of staff within British universities are now employed on ‘irregular’ contracts (see here for an excellent overview of the ills facing UK HE) including hourly paid or fixed-term contracts. This is problematic for all sorts of reasons: it’s bad for those employed like this, it’s bad for our students and their learning, it’s bad for research. It is also yet another fault-line that is being brutally exposed by the coronavirus.

Now, I have a great job in a department with lovely colleagues and students, but I also only have a contract there until the end of August. Normally, I could expect to extend this contract by another year or maybe (with a great big chunk of luck) even secure a permanent post elsewhere. However, the pandemic has led to fears that student numbers (particularly of international students) will drop dramatically. Universities are scrambling to cut costs in anticipation of this happening and hiring freezes have been instituted across most (if not all) institutions, while the possibility of contract renewals suddenly hangs very much in the balance.

What that means is that PhD students who rely on extra income from teaching to make ends meet, or those who are just finishing their PhD and were preparing to enter the job market for their first academic job, or early-career scholars on fixed-term contracts suddenly face the prospect of being jobless come September (if they are not already so). Colleagues and friends have had interviews for jobs cancelled with days’ notice. Many of us may be forced out of academia entirely, and returning is a very uncertain prospect (particularly for those who face barriers to progression already, due to structural sexism, racism, ableism, and more).

All of these career-related fears are of course being played out with the pandemic and all that comes with it as a background: missing and worrying about (and perhaps losing) friends and family, feeling upset and angry about those who have and will succumb to the illness, fearing for the shape the recovery will take, and so much more.

And, here’s the kicker: in the midst of all this, we feel an incessant pressure to be productive, not least because producing at a “normal” pace won’t be enough to secure a job (if it ever was in the first place). As someone who teaches and researches on global health politics, the pressure I felt to say profound things as the world ground to a stand-still was really quite something, as this (surprisingly still) niche sub-field of IR has been thrust into the limelight. Others here may have felt this pressure too, and for me it has been amplified by knowing that I need a new job come September. Yet, I’m not sure I’ve managed to say or think anything profound in months, and the insecurities and imposter syndrome (that plague near enough everyone I know that works in academia) have gone through the roof.

So, when I realised that my trepidation about writing here was because this felt like another way that I was putting my work on show amidst this pressure to produce, I decided to write this (somewhat self-referential) post that puts that trepidation on show. I suppose the wider political point here is about the precarity that characterizes so many people’s existence and what that does to livelihoods and wellbeing, and how COVID-19 has and will continue to lay this precarity bare, but I'm going to resist the pressure to say anything more profound about it (for now anyway).

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