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For many NZ scholars, the old career paths are broken. Our survey shows the reality for this new ‘academic precariat’

As in many Western countries, New Zealand’s universities have become increasingly reliant on casual and temporary employees to run classes and undertake research. The situation is becoming critical, both for young academics themselves and for the country in general.

The problem has been recognised in a recent OECD report as affecting the well-being of individual researchers and undermining national capacity to undertake vital research “necessary to address urgent societal challenges”.

The New Zealand government has also recognised the issue, acknowledging recently in its Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways green paper that “early career researchers are particularly vulnerable to career uncertainty and precarity”. Submissions on this and related issues are now being reviewed.

But focusing only on early career researchers (ECRs) creates a false separation between teaching and research, given our Education and Training Act stipulates the former should be informed by the latter.

In turn, this implies the system is comfortable with students being taught by workers on precarious, short-term contracts, with little professional development or hope of career progression.

Our report, Elephant in the Room: Precarious Work in New Zealand Universities, is based on a survey of 760 academics on fixed-term or casual contracts (including both postgraduate students and those with PhDs) across New Zealand’s eight universities. It shows the majority are stitching together a mix of short-term research and teaching contracts in an attempt to make ends meet.

Rather than being called “early career researchers”, we argue the term “academic precariat” better reflects the reality of a highly skilled workforce defined by insecure, short-term contracts, coupled with a sense of disposability and marginalisation.

A two-tier system emerges

The traditional (but never formalised) ECR model is based on two years spent on a single fixed-term, postdoctoral research position, before a move to a permanent lecturer post.

Due to underfunding and the increasing corporatisation of university management structures, however, both postdoctoral and permanent lecturer posts are increasingly rare in New Zealand, particularly outside the “STEM” subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The introduction of the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) in 2003, which provides 20% of funding for universities based on assessments of individual staff members research performance, has also contributed to an increase in the use of precarious contracts.

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This is because casual or short-term contractors reduce the teaching burden on PBRF-assessed staff, so the latter can focus on their research outputs. This has seen the emergence of a two-tier system where permanent academic staff effectively have their careers sustained by an army of casualised academic workers.

Rather than this being a short-term hardship, the two-tiered system has translated into academics spending years – sometimes entire careers – cycling through contracts that leave them with no security and little autonomy or professional development.

At the same time, they are highly vulnerable to changes in student demand or funding from research grants.

Lack of professional development

Our survey results show a majority of participants (62%) had been employed on precarious contracts (casual or fixed-term) for more than two years, with nearly a third (28.9%) for more than five years.

A total of 60% also reported their contracts were the most precarious types: either casual, with no guarantee of ongoing work (25%), or a fixed-term of less than six months (35%). Less than a quarter (22%) had contracts lasting 12 months or more.

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This means they must take on multiple contracts to get by, with nearly half (47.8%) taking on three or more employment agreements in the past 12 months.

Unsurprisingly, with multiple short-term contracts being the norm, nearly half (44.9%) of all survey participants said they had no access to any form of professional development in their roles.

Only 26.3% of participants had access to performance reviews, 21.4% to peer reviews or mentoring, and just 12.5% to formal role-specific upskilling.

Many early career academics work multiple jobs with few professional development opportunities. Getty Images

Precarious and insecure

We also found some evidence this system reinforces structural racism, echoing other research arguing that academic pathways for Māori and Pasifika aren’t working.

In our survey, over three-quarters of both Māori (77.4%) and Pasifika (76.9%) participants were currently enrolled students (compared to 51.9% of the overall sample), taking teaching or research contracts to supplement their studies.

The majority of those students (47.6% of Māori and 57.7% of Pasifika) were enrolled in non-PhD courses (compared with just 25.8% of Pākehā). PhD study is the recognised path into academia, and the need to take on multiple precarious contracts while studying is impeding that path for Māori and Pasifika students.

Read more: Māori and Pasifika scholars remain severely under-represented in New Zealand universities

Even greater numbers of international students reported being employed on casual or fixed-term contracts of less than six months than the general survey participants (67% compared to 60%).

At the same time, over half (56.7%) of international students expressed a lack of confidence they would have sufficient ongoing academic work in the next 12 months, and relied on personal savings (63.8%) and accepting extra work even when it risked jeopardising the completion of their degrees (60.9%).

At the same time, one third of survey participants (33.7%) had personally experienced discrimination, bullying or harassment, or otherwise felt unsafe in their workplace. Women (36.3%), people aged over 50 (46.5%), Māori (42.9%), Pasifika (50%), “other” ethnicities (47.6%), and people who were deaf or disabled (47.3%) were over-represented in this cohort.

A broken path

The survey also enquired into health and well-being in the context of a pandemic and the additional workloads involved in the move to online learning, combined with universities signalling cutbacks and redundancies due to the loss of international student revenue.

Participants were asked to rate their current stress levels out of ten, with the mean being 6.94. Some 43% of participants reported high to very high stress levels (8-10). Most troublingly, 30% disclosed a mental illness. These participants reported one of the highest mean stress levels (7.39) of any subgroup.

Read more: Here's what the government and universities can do about the crisis of insecure academic work

Feelings of isolation and lack of support from managers were widespread, as over a quarter (27.6%) of staff with a mental illness suggested they had no understanding at all of who to approach for support.

Overall, our report provides compelling evidence that the traditional career path of early career researchers is now largely broken. This is causing significant harm to those who attempt to take it, while reinforcing existing inequities.

Ultimately, if allowed to continue, this reality will severely compromise the country’s future capacity to keep and grow the best researchers.

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