By Anna Muggeridge
In response to the severe financial hardship resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, the Women’s History Network launched a hardship fund for historians of women based in the UK in March 2020. The fund provided one-off grants of £400 to help ease the financial burden on those most adversely affected by the virus. 8 awards were made at the end of April 2020, with a further 12 awards made in a second round at the end of May 2020.
The volume of applications received reveals the scale and scope of the difficulties many researchers of women’s history are facing because of the virus and the consequent disruption within and beyond the academic community. In total, we received 55 applications: 11 from MA students, 29 from PhD students, 13 from early career researchers, 5 from independent scholars working outside of academia and 1 from the heritage sector. A greater proportion of ECR applications were received in the second round, launched at the beginning of May.
The virus has caused tremendous uncertainty and many universities have announced jobs cuts, with those on precarious, fixed-term contracts most at risk. ECRs who applied reported contracts being revoked or not renewed, and PhD students who had been promised GTA positions had had these revoked also. The current pandemic has exacerbated the increasingly precarious academic job market. A UCU report (January 2020) found that 46% of universities use zero hours contracts to deliver teaching and 68% of research staff were on fixed term contracts. Non-white academics and women were already more likely to experience precarity, even before the current crisis.
Furthermore, the temporary and casual work on which many postgraduates and ECRs have previously relied to ‘top up’ their finances during periods of precarity (tutoring schoolchildren, exam invigilation and marking, as well as work in the service industries) have been affected by the cancellation of exams and the closure of schools and the service sector. Because of the temporary or casual nature of much of this work, many applicants to the fund were not eligible for government support through the furlough scheme. Those who live with persons in the ‘vulnerable’ health category, or are themselves vulnerable, are also limited in the kinds of work they might undertake as these sectors slowly reopen.
Research outputs have also been affected by the Corona Virus. Globally, the rate at which women are submitting to academic journals has fallen rapidly since the onset of the pandemic, although this has risen for men. Applicants with caring responsibilities noted the significantly detrimental impact these have had on their ability to continue to work. The closure of schools has dominated headlines, but women also bear the brunt of other caring responsibilities. Some applicants had had to move at short notice to help support family members who needed to shield, but continued to pay rent and costs at their own homes.
The closure of archives has impacted on all historians’ ability to undertake research, however current MA and PhD students were especially worried about the longer-term implications for their studies. Some will inevitably have to extend their studies to make up for time missed during the pandemic, with some universities and research councils are not at present clear on who will qualify for funding extensions or tuition waivers. For self-funding PhD students, extending the time studying also extends the amount of time in which they are not able to earn.
As the UK slowly begins to re-open certain sections of the economy and society and life returns to what is being referred to as a ‘new normal’, many of the problems outlined above are still not solved. While the WHN is pleased to have been able to offer some financial support, it is clear that many in the sector will still face huge challenges in the months and possibly years ahead.