Going it alone: Why university lecturers go freelance

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* An edited version of this story is due to appear on the Guardian Higher Education Network.

The students are back on campus this week. But, instead of uploading schemes of work and heading to class, I’ll be clearing my desk.

I’m leaving a contracted role as a university lecturer to go it alone, offering my services as a freelance tutor [pictured above], setting up my own day courses and developing e-learning projects.

It feels scary. On a practical level I’ll miss the resources of having a university behind me while, emotionally, the isolation of working without a community of trusted colleagues to share the day-to-day travails feels pretty daunting.

But I feel increasingly frustrated by the lethargy of the university environment, the gear-grinding bureaucracy of decision-making and the nit-picking interference of senior management.

Shared concerns

According to Jon Richards, trade union UNISON’s National Secretary Education and Children’s Services, I’m not the only one.

“The increased pressures at work, the tendency for some HE institutions to ape poor business management practices and an environment of falling pay, conditions and pensions. Faced with these, the idea of working alone under your own steam must seem attractive,” he says. He adds:

“There are risks, notably the change from a steady paycheck to uncertain and non-guaranteed income.”

Strategic choice

Dr. Neil Thompson left a job as Professor of Applied Social Studies at Staffordshire University in 1997 to go freelance. He set up his own business, offering training, consultancy and expert witness services.

“I walked away from university employment but carried on doing academic things, such as working as an external examiner and being part of an editorial board for an academic journal,” he explains.

He offers three pieces of advice for lecturers looking to make the leap: establish a market for your services, act as a professional and build a freelance career around a diverse portfolio of work.

“I still remember the pressure I felt when I first went freelance to do a good job. After all, somebody is paying you,” he adds. “And remember, working independently means you are effectively a small business so start to think more commercially.”

“Business is not a dirty word.”

Online learning

For Roger McDonald, an independent curator and lecturer based in Japan, the evolution of technology has enabled him to carve a new niche. Roger, who did a PhD in art history at the University of Kent, Canterbury, moved to Japan in 2000 as a founding member of the not-for-profit Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT), which runs an independent art school in Tokyo. He combines this with casual work as art lecturer at Tokyo Zokei University.

He teaches contemporary and modern art history in Japanese with sessions available to watch free online via YouTube. “It took time getting used to recording myself but now there is a substantial archive available online,” he says.

“For me, I enjoy thinking up a curriculum outside the remit of ordinary institutional teaching, such as like a course on hallucinogenic drugs and modern artists. The downside is less peer group discussions than in an institutional setting,” he adds.

Mentally prepared

From my own point of view, I’ve tried to prepare myself for change by putting the word out through my professional network, contacting a broad range of organisations from schools to higher education via corporate clients to offer my subject expertise, and updating my website and social media channels to reflect my plans.

I also signed up to a local co-working group, taking a hot desk in a communal space with a seminar room, where I intend to run my own masterclass sessions. I hope this will provide me with a new support network, albeit one with a broader community of micro-businesses from IT to publishing.

To be honest, the diary still has lots of blank pages and the creeping sense of unease still gives me some sleepless nights.

I know it will take time to build up my business and I’m in this for the long haul.

I’ll admit to a twinge of sadness as pack my things this week, take a deep breath and step into the unknown. But whatever happens, I’ll be the master of my own destiny.

And that feels good.

Gazetteer

Neil Thompson

AIT Tokyo

UNISON

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