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Temporary staff have finally got through to humanities management

Precariat — The prospect of better employment contracts, regular meetings with management, increasing international cooperation, and a future postdoc-portal. This is what has come out of UCPH getting an association that advocates for the rights of temporary researchers. Representative for technical-scientific staff Dan Hirslund says that it is about countering an academic ‘precarisation’.

The precarisation of Danish researchers’ working life continues.

According to a recent analysis of the universities’ distribution of positions measured in full-time equivalents from the Magisterbladet magazine, temporary staff now conduct half of all research and education in Denmark, up from one third 20 years ago. If you count in PhD students, the figure is significantly higher.

At the University of Copenhagen there has also been a growing number of researchers on postdoc contracts and in the years 2011-16, the number increased from 724 to 1,043. An association of temporary staff (abbreviated as the TVIP category) was set up at the Faculty of Humanities in the autumn of 2017 to lobby for the precariously employed researchers and instructors.

Management turns up at meetings

And it has not been in vain, according to Dan Vesalainen Hirslund, associate professor (in a temporary position) at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, and still active in the TVIP association at Humanities which he helped to found.

Management – including the dean and several department heads at the Faculty of Humanities – now hold regular meetings with their employees. “It is a space for conversation where our postdocs meet the management directly,” says Dan Hirslund, who says that the next meeting is scheduled for March 2019.

TVIP-HUM

At the most recent general meeting, the following were elected to its board:

Dan V. Hirslund, staff representative, employed at ToRS
Malene Monka, employed at NoRS
Gert Foget Hansen, employed at NoRS
Line Sandst, former PhD student and now assistant professor at Aalborg University

“We have talked to management about developing common policies on transparency and common guidelines on temporarily affiliated researchers’ employment contracts. There are currently large differences in the terms that the different departments offer. We want to get rid of the very short appointments that go way down to a few months duration,” he says.

TVIP-HUM is trying to get management to agree to guaranteed research for temporary staff and access to a teacher-training programme for assistant professors (the course is a prerequisite for work at the university as an associate professor, ed.).

“Management is reserving the the teacher-training as an offer to assistant professors employed on tenure-track positions (the employment programmes with built-in career development towards a permanent job as associate professor, ed.). But we want everyone to be able to take the course, as it is a prerequisite. In our opinion, there is no good management argument for not offering the course,” says Dan Hirslund.

Overview on a site for temporary staff

TVIP-HUM has agreed with the Faculty of Humanities to establish a ‘postdoc-portal’. This ensures visibility, and that the postdocs exchange experiences, which can be a problem in a group with a high turnover of personnel.

“It is a virtual portal, where you can get an overview of your rights as a temporary staff member, and which I hope will help foster a culture of being a postdoc, so that it will become a basis for activism,” says Dan Hirslund.

We want to get rid of the very short appointments that go way down to a few months duration.

Dan Hirslund, TVIP-HUM

In addition, the association has, by way of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, set up a network with a similar association at Aarhus University and emerging groups at other universities.

“This is where the efforts against the precarisation of the universities can take place at a national level. In September 2018 we held a one-day seminar and a publication of the results will be published shortly,” says Dan Hirslund. The national association for temporary staff is called TER, short for Temporarily Employed Researchers, as English is the working language for some of the members. A new meeting in this group is scheduled to be held in January 2019.

Finally, the association is setting up a common European ‘hub’ for precarious academics.

International trend which rectors could fight

In the DR Deadline tv show on 28th December, the rector of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) Anders Overgard Bjerklev commented on a Magisterbladet magazine investigation of researchers’ working conditions which indicated that precarisation is increasing in Denmark.

Bjerklev, who is chairman of the rectors’ organisation, Universities Denmark, said that this trend of more and more people getting temporary appointments is ‘certainly’ here to stay. It is a consequence of the fact that politicians cut universities’ basic grants, while research is increasingly financed by foundations that support specific projects with associated temporary staff.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing,” Bjerklev said in the programme, while at the same time pointing out the importance of universities getting a basic grant that is large enough to permanently employ teaching staff.

We are thereby just following an international trend. But it is important to work against it

Dan Hirslund

At TVIP-HUM the problems are more clear-cut.

“Precarious appointments have become more dominant in Denmark. But in global terms, they have always been prevalent. We are thereby just following an international trend. But it is important to work against it,” says Dan Hirslund. He puts part of the responsibility on senior university management, and urges them to prioritise their overall finances differently.

“The universities in Denmark attract approximately the same amount of external funding each year, so they could become better at setting up fixed, embedded, positions for this funding. In TVIP-HUM we believe that there is the need for a more proactive approach from the chairman of the rectors and his colleagues.”

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