Financial security and, as one striker put it, ‘a viable future’. Wouldn’t it be nice if the discovery that these things are worth fighting for led to an improvement in the lot of precariously employed academics? They could certainly do with a bit of both here and now, not just a few years or decades down the line.

Judging by a part-time, fixed-term position that has just been advertised in my field, one should not get one’s hopes up. I have already sounded off about it on Twitter, but in this case, coming as it does from my old undergraduate college, and at a time of so much idealism in the USS strike, I wanted to give it a bit more attention than an emphemeral rant. So, what I propose to do in this post is to take apart what exactly is going on here – to show how casualization becomes institutionalized in the very language of appointments – with a close reading of the job ad and further particulars.

The facts: it’s a ‘five-hour Stipendiary Lecturer in German, for four years’, with a stipend on a scale ‘currently starting at £16,040 per annum’.

To begin with: in fairness, it is at least possible that these terms might be a bit more favourable than they sound. There could be a slightly higher salary (perhaps – the omission of the upper range of the scale can be interpreted in more than one way…). It is also conceiveable that fewer than five contact hours could be involved in practice (it is not clarified whether the stint is in ‘weighted hours’, in which case group sizes can lead to fewer hours actually being taught). And the right to some meals in college can also be helpful when one is struggling to make ends meet. Time to read on…

On ‘teaching needs’

We are initially told that ‘this appointment is to fulfill teaching needs arising from the reduction in teaching hours’ for the current full-time staff member. Reading on, however, we discover that the post is not just about teaching cover but also involves playing

a full role in the running of Modern Languages and its joint schools in the two Colleges, including arranging tuition, participating in admissions processes if requested, setting and marking college examinations, submitting timely teaching records and reports each term, attending Freshers’ Week meetings and report readings at the ends of term if required, assisting with the pastoral care of undergraduates, acting as personal tutor and graduate advisor, and contributing to the Colleges’ Open Days.

Quite a substantial workload. We then find that the job also involves covering central University/Faculty teaching over and above the five college hours on the basis of which the stipend has been calculated. The successful candidate

will be expected to contribute eight lectures each year to the lecturing programme of the Sub-Faculty, to supervise Masters students (as appropriate), and to assist with examining and other Faculty activities.

Now – again, in fairness – at least some of these other responsibilites will be renumerated: examining, admissions interviewing, and (I assume!) central teaching, for example. All that, however, is likely to be paid on a piece-by-piece basis: per script, per hour, etc. To make what that means in practice a bit more tangible: when I last gave an eight-lecture course in Oxford, in 2015, the fee was £50 per lecture, so a total of £400 (pre-tax). I can but hope that the figure has since increased; at any event, it should be obvious that the amount of additional income generated if extra duties are paid on top of the stipend in this manner, is not going to be terribly substantial in proportion to the labour put in.

What about research?

Given that the employer on its homepage promises students ‘tutorial teaching from first-class academics’, it is no surprise to find that research is part of the selection criteria. Candidates should ‘should be able to demonstrate a research record or potential at the highest level’ and provide ‘brief account of their research interests’ with their application.

How curious, then, that research is not included in the responsibilities of the successful candidate. One wonders quite what the point is of hiring somebody on the basis of their research potential unless they are going to realize it at some point in the next four years. One might also wonder why a seasoned researcher would be appointed on the basis of their record and then be expected to abandon it. It is very hard – particularly if we know, as we all do, that those in fixed-term jobs need to publish to advance their career – to conclude anything other than that unpaid research labour is being sanctioned.

Making ends meet

Indeed, the further particulars obliquely acknowledge that the deal being offered might well need supplementing with other sources of income:

It is fully expected that there will be further German literature and language teaching available at other Oxford colleges which it would be possible to combine or formally link with this post, entirely at the discretion of the successful candidate. Additional teaching would be paid separately, either at an hourly rate, or in the form of a further stipendiary lectureship.

Note, though, that the possibility of ‘a further stipendiary lectureship’ remains vague: we must conclude that it is for the candidate to obtain one, if they are lucky – and we should not forget that such posts tend not to have a research component, so the issue of unpaid research remains even then. The opportunity to do additional, hourly paid teaching is also something of a red herring: it is entirely different, in terms of renumeration and benefits, from having a formal position – being able to rely on a monthly salary rather than waiting until the end of each term to be paid, is just one of those differences that tend to matter when one is not earning that much in the first place.

So, who could actually do the job then?

We have seen here how the – in itself not unreasonable – need for teaching cover in a part-time position becomes something akin to a front for a job that involves – and I think I am entitled from experience to say this – a great deal more: undergraduate pastoral care, graduate supervision and advising, administration, faculty service, examining, central university lecturing, all paid, if at all, at an hourly rate or similar.

This is particularly problematic because of the duration of this post. It is not just a term or two, as these things often are, but a four-year commitment. Applying and carrying out the role means making a life decision, not merely taking the chance to get some experience and fill a short-term gap after handing in a thesis.

It has, therefore, to be asked: who could actually take up a job such as this? We can be reasonably confident that relocation costs will not be covered. Together with the low salary and the need for connections in order to get the extra teaching, this means that the terms are weighted toward someone established in Oxford already. This effect is reinforced by the fact that the income-to-working hours ratio will be more favourable to somebody who has taught in Oxford before than to somebody who has to prepare everything from scratch. The position is, finally, inherently biased toward a scholar who already has financial security from other sources, and it envisages a candidate who does not need to prioritize research in their future career – or is willing to do it for free.

On alternative careers

None of the above is particularly new, nor is it unique to any particular institution – we might recall, for example, the Institute of Historical Research advertising a 12-month Fellowship with a stipend less than last year’s mean annual salary for street cleaners in the UK. It should not really need to be explained why all of this is so questionable, but the fact is that there is an ongoing collective unwillingness to talk about it. That is largely why this post has spent so much time stating the obvious.

In that vein, if it’s not clear enough already: the alternative. It would be to offer an up-front salary that acknowledges the true amount of work being done – rather than taking the cheap combination of this stipend with hourly pay for the additional duties. It would also be to value the research of the successful candidate – in both senses of the word. Even if still a part-time position, the result might then at least aspire to supporting a reasonable standard of living in a city as expensive as Oxford.

As it is, however, one cannot help noticing that, next to this job, the position of Gardener is also being advertised – at a salary ranging from £17,062.50 to £21,196.50. The money, at any rate, would appear to be there.