News from the world of higher education
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Higher education – a gig economy

University teachers and researchers constitute a highly educated precariat and employment conditions in higher education a gig economy. These are the findings of a new report from SULF.

MarieLouise Samuelsson
Researchers and university teachers see the granting of funding as a game, comparable to a lottery and gambling, according to a new report from SULF.

The notion that hungry wolves hunt best ignores the fact that those who are absolutely starving can only catch easy prey. In the world of research, this can mean that people who constantly have to bring in money to cover their own salary avoid bold projects in favour of playing safe.

That is a brief summary of the impressions taken from the report In the shadow of uncertainty –external funding, precarious employment and work environment in higher education, which highlights how employment conditions for university teachers and researchers impact not only their work environment, but also the higher education institution in general, teaching and research.

Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl

Constant stress and 55-hour weeks
The report, which was commissioned by SULF and written by Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl, a Doctor of Medicine and working life researcher, is based on questionnaire responses from 5,556 SULF members and supplemented with interviews. The majority of the respondents work in various positions at universities and colleges, while some have left higher education.

The report reflects a constant struggle for people to create a reasonably secure work situation for themselves, which remains unattainable for many. The interviewees talk about constant stress, 55-hour weeks and leisure time that needs to be spent writing applications for external funding in order to avoid losing their jobs at short notice.

Stuck in different circles
One theme in the report is how teaching and research tend to form separate circles and problematic hamster wheels. Those who are not successful at obtaining external funding may need to “cover their costs” by taking on more and more teaching. That circle is difficult to break, because teaching often takes more time than is allocated and people who have a high number of teaching hours have neither the time to do research nor to apply for external funding and find it increasingly difficult to acquire sufficient qualifications for research.

In another circle are those who already have external funding, a favourable position but one where the pressure to continue submitting as many applications as possible makes them choose “low-hanging fruit” instead of original research ideas. The report contains several accounts of how applications are adapted to, as one senior lecturer puts it, “the right seasonal trend concepts”.

Another senior lecturer describes what this can mean for applications in practice. “We threw in a lot of sustainability words, and the result is that now we all sit and write a lot of articles about a sustainable bloody working life, but that is not really what we are interested in.”

A lottery who gets funding
“Surprisingly, those who are successful at acquiring funding also described it as a game. The granting of applications was compared to a lottery and gambling,” says Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl.

Only a small number of those surveyed and interviewed believe that it is they who best deserve it whose applications are successful. Even people who themselves have received grants put it down to good fortune. They agree that it is only reasonable that they should try to make their application socially relevant and feasible in order for it to be considered at all, but do not believe that the system ensures quality in research.

According to the survey responses and interviews, the low success rate of applications confirms that it is far from a given that it is the best research that is rewarded. No-one blames the application assessment groups, who are felt to be doing the best they can, but there is a widespread perception that small assessment panels and broad research areas lead to a risk of “insufficient competence” when applications are to be assessed.

Applications a stress factor
The report states that writing applications is a particular stress factor. The more applications a person writes, the more stress they suffer. And that is in addition to other work environment-related factors, such as demands, social community, influence and recognition.

External funding is, however, perceived as an acceptable way of distributing money. Few can think any better alternatives, at least compared with internal distribution, which is regarded with great scepticism as people do not trust that alternative to work fairly.

Many argue further that it is not even relevant to discuss whether external funding is an opportunity or a burden, as the system currently does not make it possible to not seek external funding.

Risk of accepting a heavy workload
Regardless of position and conditions such as form of employment and work environment, there is a great commitment to both teaching and research. These are things that people are passionate about and want to do. As their work is also an interest, a passion, there is a risk that they never believe themselves to be working ”too much”, regardless of the number of unpaid hours they put in, which in turn leads to acceptance of a heavy workload.

“The responsibility for doing a good job is placed on the individuals rather than on conditions that they are expected to deal with themselves,” says Fagerlind Ståhl. “According to the Work Environment Act, the employer is ultimately responsible for the work environment, but when the higher education institution does not guarantee the employee’s salary or employment, the question of responsibility becomes blurred.”

This leads to the individual facing the risk of shouldering the entire responsibility, as well as guilt because of the stress of being tossed around between the higher education institution that does not employ, the research grants councils’ short-term funding and the state, which provides the money.

Looks like a gig economy
Even if the results of the survey and interviews are not surprising, it may seem strange to an outsider that university teachers and researchers have employment conditions that, put slightly dramatically, are comparable with the gig economy’s cycling couriers. This at the same time as people such as politicians have high expectations that universities and colleges deliver scientific quality and, preferably, excellent research.

“I am not sure that politicians or society at large are really aware of the circumstances,”, says Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl. “It might also be difficult for outsiders to ‘feel sorry’ for university teachers and researchers and to arouse sympathy for them as a vulnerable group. But if they can’t bring themselves to care about researchers, perhaps politicians could ask themselves how work environment and conditions impact the research itself and reflect on how much the system costs. Where does the tax money that is earmarked for research actually go when so much time is spent applying for the money?”

MarieLouise Samuelsson

Universitetsläraren conforms strictly to journalistic principles and follows the media industry’s rules on publication and professional ethics. The magazine is free and independent of its owner, SULF – the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers.
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