The tyranny of the timesheet

This post was inspired by the National Tertiary Education Union 2014 conference on Insecure Work. Thanks to the National Tertiary Education Union for inviting the Research Whisperer to be part of the conference, and for paying for my airfare and accommodation. I learned many things, and this post covers some of them. 

A timesheet with 'No more!' across it in big red lettersI hate timesheets.

It has been a while since I needed to fill out a timesheet, but my visceral distaste for the timesheet ritual remains very strong.

It wasn’t just that they were fiddly and annoying and stupid (although they were). I hated what they represented – they made me feel unvalued, disempowered, and disposable.

At the back of my mind was the lurking knowledge that I could be dismissed with an hour’s notice, that I was a ‘resource’, that I was temporary.

It didn’t matter that my boss valued my work, and I had excellent relationships with them, or that we had a long history of working together.

When you work at a university, you learn that there are two different drivers for all activity: personal ethics and institutional imperative.

When the institutional imperative calls for a review or a restructure or any other activity that requires shedding jobs or saving money, the nicest people can end up doing truly horrible things, no matter what their personal ethics call for. If the rules say you get sacked without notice, you get sacked without notice.

Timesheets, at their heart, represent hourly paid work. This work gets called different things in different places – sessional, casual, adjunct, whatever. Names have power, though, so I think that we should call it what it is – hourly paid work (except on your CV, when you want it to sound as shiny as possible). By doing this, we take away the mystique, the special language, of the academy. By calling it hourly paid work, we bring it into the same world as stacking supermarket shelves and flipping burgers. We bring it into the marketplace.

It is important that we do that, because one in two jobs at Australian universities are now casual or contract. [1]

They might be research staff, admin staff, or teaching staff.

In all probability, they are doing lots of different things, often for multiple employers, because they don’t get a full workload from one position. And, in each job, they are filling out one of those stupid timesheets. Every. Damned. Fortnight.

Some people argue that filling out timesheets provides a sense of freedom. These people, it has to be said, don’t fill out timesheets themselves. Generally, they are Vice Chancellors, Human Resource Managers, and others who are well ensconced in the system.

When you ask the people who are filling out timesheets, the overwhelming majority of them will tell you that they would prefer a contract or, even better, a permanent position. Partly, that is because contracts and permanent positions provide conditions such as:

  • Twelve months of work instead of eight months of work. If you are paid by the hour, you aren’t paid for holiday breaks.
  • Two weeks (or more) notice if you’re going to be dismissed, instead of an hour’s notice, or no notice at all.
  • Decent superannuation. I get 17% superannuation. An hourly paid worker doing my job would get 9.5% (and no allowance for leave).
  • Stronger protections under the law.

More than anything else, though, contracts and permanent positions provide a sense of belonging. This is not some ethereal concept.

A sense of belonging comes from a sense of inclusion: inclusion in staff meetings, in all staff emails; it’s feeling like you’re in the centre of things, rather than the periphery.

A sense of belonging comes from a sense of continuity: being considered part of a team, the planning process, and the departmental lunches.

A sense of belonging comes from a sense of security: not feeling frightened to speak out, try something new, or that you won’t make rent. It comes from the magic of a regular pay-cheque being automatically deposited into your account each week.

Filling out a timesheet is a regular reminder that you don’t have any of these things.

Here’s a simple example:

A colleague of mine set up an induction program for hourly-paid lecturers at her university. Until she did that, there was no induction process for them. The majority of the workforce wasn’t getting any induction into a university that is the size of a small city, with bureaucratic processes to match. Even though the need for this program was self-evident, hardly anybody in authority was willing to pay their staff for the four hours required to attend the induction program.

When faced with institutional imperatives like this, you need to find ways to protect yourself.

Here is my suggestion for how to do this:

That’s it. This isn’t an ‘if all else fails’ suggestion. This is THE suggestion. If you are highly educated and highly skilled, and you are being paid by the hour, then getting out should be your first priority – heartbreaking though that might be.

Don’t think that it can’t be done; it can be.

If you need advice, there is a whole industry geared to finding to finding school teachers jobs outside the teaching profession, and most of there advice will work for you, too.

Or, if your financial situation allows it, embrace the uncertainty and set up your own business. This mightn’t be practical if you need a lot of specialised equipment, but if all you need is a computer and an idea, then it can be very simple to do. I did it after I was retrenched some years ago, and I survived. In fact, I prospered, even though (looking back) I wasn’t very good at it.

In the end, the ultimate ‘freedom’ that you have is the freedom to withdraw your labour. If you are being paid by the hour, then I strongly suggest that you exercise that freedom before some institutional imperative exercises it against you.

If you can’t leave, if you find that you are emotionally or financially committed to the idea of being an academic, then you owe it to yourself to do the following things:

  • Take care of yourself and your family. In hourly paid work, stress will eat you up if you let it. As the Victorian Workcover Authority says, “The most important reason for making your workplace safe, is not at work at all“.
  • Know the bargain. Read your Enterprise Bargaining agreement and ask questions until you understand it. Be aware that you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. This is the very definition of disputed territory, but that’s OK – we are researchers, so we know this kind of terrain.
  • Follow the money. Know where your salary comes from, and how it should be spent. In particular, if you being paid from a fixed-term grant, then put on your big person boots and ask for a fixed-term contract. That’s how grants work, so it should be how you work, too. Not perfect, but better than filling out timesheets.
  • Get organized. Join a union. Your union will provide you with information, a safe place to discuss issues openly, a way to take organized action, collective bargaining, test cases, and legal challenges to unfair conditions.
  • Be prepared to speak truth to power. Read the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (or your local equivalent). Being paid by the hour means being vulnerable to exploitation. The Code has specific provisions that protect the intellectual input of junior researchers. Be brave – don’t be a victim. (Thanks to Alan Johnson for that advice).
  • Have an exit strategy. The overall lesson from the #ECRchat on how to develop a career exit strategy is: always be prepared for a career transition, stay focused, and keep moving forward.

Finally, if you are a reading this from the safety of a contracted or permanent position, speak up for the people around you who aren’t. Often, they will be doing exactly the same work as you are, while getting lower pay, less superannuation, and significantly worse conditions.

And don’t think that this can’t happen to you.

Tomorrow (25 February 2015), in the United States of America, adjunct staff will stage National Adjunct Walkout Day.

If you want to see how bad it can get for you, look at how bad it is for them.


[1] Jeannie Rea, NTEU Insecure Work conference, Hobart, Australia, November 2014.


  1. Hi – one of the things missing here is the sheer number of hourly paid workers who do overtime without pay in the hope of getting something more permanent. Writing articles in your spare time is necessary if you are a casual academic paid only for time in the class room or as an RA. You won’t get a permanent position as a lecturer without a research track record. You won’t get a research track record without writing. Even a research assistant or post-doc means you are doing someone else’s research and this means doing your own research in your own time.


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