Irish universities have a secret they don’t want you to know about: the low pay and deeply exploitative employment conditions of a very significant proportion of academic staff in Ireland – between a third and 40% – who are employed on precarious and temporary contracts. This includes both teachers and researchers, across all disciplines.
Up until this moment the secret has been well-kept. Most Trinity students reading these words, just like members of the public, may well believe that most or all of their lecturers receive a professional salary and are financially secure. The sad truth, however, is that it is highly likely that almost every undergraduate Trinity student has, at some point in their career, been taught by staff who earned a rate barely more than the national minimum wage.
“Those on insecure and precarious contracts reported elevated levels of stress, and many had considered leaving academia”
Last month, the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), our trade union, released a report,, available online, into academic precarity. It revealed that many academics report regularly working unpaid hours, and 60% of respondents thought their workload was unmanageable. Those on insecure and precarious contracts reported elevated levels of stress, and many had considered leaving academia. For many, their insecure conditions of employment had prevented them from making other important life decisions: buying a house or having children becomes impossible when you cannot financially plan for your future.
Precarity is also a significant driver of the gender gap in academia. IFUT’s report found that women make up most of the part-time, fixed term, and low-paid workers in the sector.
The problem of precarious employment in academia has become endemic in Ireland and in many other countries over the last 15 years. These workers struggle with financial insecurity and desperately low pay, now more than ever given the housing and cost of living crisis. Lecturers in the weakest and most poorly-paid category, termed ‘hourly-paid,’ (as they are paid a flat fee per class) can deliver what this college considers to be a full teaching load, educating hundreds of students over an academic year, and yet still earn less than €7000 a year.
Most of these lecturers are qualified to PhD level, which requires 3-4 years of postgraduate study and often leaves graduates in significant debt. To put it into context, the recent student blockade of the Book of Kells to protest rent increases was estimated to have cost college €50,000 in lost ticket revenue in a single day, more than what six such hourly-paid individuals earn in a full year.
“Lecturers in this situation are forced onto social welfare during the summer months”
Precariously employed lecturers or staff on the Teaching Fellow grade, who are not hourly -paid, will be on a temporary contract, often for only 3, 6, or 9 months of the year. While Trinity’s salary scales are publicly available, these lecturers earn only a fraction: 0.3, 0.6 or 0.7 of each figure on the scale. Lecturers in this situation are forced onto social welfare during the summer months, or have to rely on the support of family or a partner to pay their rent and bills. Some teach at multiple institutions to make ends meet, and are therefore forced to constantly learn new material to deliver to new groups of students.
Like other Irish Universities, Trinity College is increasingly delivering a very significant proportion of its teaching – between a third and 40% – through precarious and temporary arrangements with this increasingly the norm in some (though not all) departments . Spending on casual staff in Trinity College has increased substantially by 23.3% since 2019. While some casual employment is necessary and useful, there is considerable evidence that casual work is being used to fill gaps in essential, core teaching functions, not least because schools and departments are being forced into unenviable choices due to the lack of public funding.
It is important to highlight the wider political context for precarious working and exploitation of vulnerable staff, which is perhaps the most opaque and poorly understood aspect of precarity. This context is all about the relentless underfunding and neglect of higher education by the Government, particularly in starving higher education of recurrent funding since 2008. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris TD, openly acknowledged in 2021 that €400 million in recurrent funding was needed to address the day-to-day requirements of higher education institutions and end precarity in higher education. Last year there was no net increase in recurrent funding at all, while this year the net increase in recurrent funding was no more than €60 million.
This is a scandal hiding in plain sight and is the main factor behind the current structure of inequality and exploitation. Although Minister Simon Harris once said that education, skills, and lifelong learning are ‘the most robust, transformative, and lasting means to future-proof our country’s economic and social wellbeing’, the reality is that staff in the Higher Education sector on fixed term and short-term contracts and even more those on casual pay are the most exploited, insecure and undervalued workers in the Irish Public Service.
Why do lecturers agree to such poor conditions? Many believe that a few years gaining valuable teaching experience – even if they are exploited during that time – will ultimately help them gain a secure, better-paid permanent job: and a career which requires such a long period of training as this one is difficult to give up. But this is increasingly a vain hope for many who will eventually be forced out of the profession, while others will be stuck on precarious or temporary contracts for the majority of their careers. Some lecturers in this college have been employed on these terms for 20 years.
As the Government continues to pressure universities to continue increasing the numbers of students it admits while providing only paltry recurrent funding, there will be an continually increasing demand for more lecturers to provide teaching for a wage with which they will not be able to support themselves. This situation is unsustainable.
Though they may not always be aware of the problem, our students are profoundly impacted by academic precarity too. Precarity means a lack of continuity in their education, reflected in a very high turnover of staff in many departments. Some departments in this college have seen more than 20 academic staff members come and go over a five-year period: a figure that would be considered shocking in a secondary school. Such a high turnover also makes it extremely difficult for departments and schools to make a lasting effort to share best practices and improve standards of teaching, or to create a vibrant and active research culture. Many precarious academics are excellent and dedicated teachers, many produce world-class research, but their insecure conditions of employment and, frequently, their huge workloads, make it impossible for them to always deliver their best.
Module choice is reduced due to the reduced number of permanent staff, and in some departments modules are being cancelled at the last minute due to the impossibility of finding qualified lecturers willing to teach them on the terms being offered. As Trinity is considering expanding its programmes to offer qualifications delivered by hybrid online and in-person learning, with classes taking place on the evenings and weekends, it is clear that even more flexibility will be asked from an already highly flexible workforce. But what will be offered to that workforce in return?
On the 28th of November in the Synge Theatre, Trinity’s branch of IFUT will launch the report into precarity in Irish Higher Education. The report’s recommendations call for institutions to adopt an anti-precarity charter and an ethical hiring code, to identify pathways to permanency for precarious staff, to recruit more teaching staff and to improve conditions of employment across the board.
We hope it will spark conversations on the subject all over campus and a constructive dialogue between academic and professional colleagues, permanent and contract staff, to drive forward solutions to precarious working. We need concerted effort both from the government and universities to tackle the problem of precarity, to invest in and offer proper career development to employees, and to ensure that the university’s spending priorities remain focused on their core functions of teaching and research. Irish students pay the highest tuition fees in the European Union: let’s make sure that they will continue to receive the world-class education that they deserve.