Casual contracts ‘dehumanise’ lecturers – UCU

A report from the University and College Union argues insecure contracts are creating ‘second-class’ staff

Growing dependence on “precarious, low-paid” academics is creating vulnerable, invisible “second-class” staff, a damning new report has claimed.

The report from the country’s largest lecturer’s union said the higher education sector was “becoming increasingly dependent upon a growing pool of workers employed to teach and conduct research on precarious and unfavourable contracts”. 

“The current mass casualisation of academic labour [is] dehumanising,” the University and College Union (UCU) report concluded.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady warned employers that the report could not be “excused or underplayed”. 

“Some institutions have worked with us to move staff on to more secure contracts, but overall the higher education sector is too happy to exploit its army of casualised staff,” Ms Grady said.

The report – Second class academic citizens – written by Nick Megoran and Olivia Mason of Newcastle University identifies four ways in which casualised academic labour is “dehumanising”. Megoran and Mason conducted interviews with over 70 people, all based at institutions in the north-east of England, and identified moments when their employment ‘dehumanised’ them. 

Academics on casualised contracts become “second-class” staff because they are vulnerable, invisible, without agency and unable to plan for the future, the authors summarised. 

The higher education sector is too happy to exploit its army of casualised staff
– Jo Grady, UCU

According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 67% of researchers and 49% of ‘teaching only’ staff are on fixed-term contracts. Of this latter group, 42% are paid hourly.

The authors also highlight the 6,500 academics on zero-hour contracts in their report, as well as the 70,000 ‘atypical’ academic staff on the employment roll, who are employed on contracts that HESA describes as those that are “not permanent, involve complex employment relationships and/or involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider”. 

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which represents HEIs in their discussions with trade unions, did not refute the findings of the report, but claimed the number of casual contracts in the sector is shrinking and said it was willing to explore options for “further joint work” with the UCU on this matter.

The authors described a ‘humanising’ employer to be one which: listens to staff and grants them freedom and autonomy; does not impose “harmful audit culture”; values human relationships; has sympathy for staff; offers “contractual affirmation”; and creates communities. 

The report includes extracts from interviews conducted with anonymised academics.

In one conversation, an academic called Amelia described the “standard practice” of staff contracted to work 12 months on an agreement which only covers the academic year. These 10-month contracts expect “teaching preparation time to occur outside these [months],” the report said. 

Another academic described how their contract had given them no right to a mentor or to pension contributions, making them cheaper to employ than an academic on an open-ended contract. 

Under current law, only employees on open-ended contracts are legally entitled to a pension scheme with contributions from their employer. 

A third academic described travelling between three universities in three different cities every week, trying to piece together full-time employment with three different jobs. 

The report describes a culture where staff feel unable to challenge their situation for fear of offending their employer and never gaining a full-time, open-ended contract with better conditions. 

“Staff are treated not as human beings of equal value to their colleagues, but as second-class academic citizens, mere ‘resources’ to be deployed to further strategic visions of vice chancellors and governing boards,” the report concludes. 

Despite the figures from HESA, UCU said it is difficult to fully account for the number of insecure contracts in HE. “Responses to Freedom of Information requests made to universities for this report were patchy – some institutions refused to provide information, and many simply did not keep the relevant data,” the authors explained. 

Universities always want to ensure their colleagues, whatever contract they are on, feel that they are appropriately rewarded and supported to give their best for students
– UCEA spokesperson

A UCEA spokesperson said the association wanted to work with the UCU to better understand employment across the sector, but warned that writing contracts was the responsibility of individual institutions. 

“UCEA has over recent years worked with UCU and the other HE trade unions to better understand employment across the HE sector. Indeed, the HESA data on zero hours and hourly-paid contracts quoted in the report was introduced as a direct result of a joint working approach.

“Our own analysis demonstrates both continued growth in the HE workforce and that this growth is strongest in open-ended contracts which increased by 21.9% whilst atypical contracts declined by 16.1% during the same period between 2011-12 and 2017-18.

“We are currently exploring options for further joint work. The employment arrangements within autonomous universities are of course for institutional-level discussions and not for UCEA. Universities always want to ensure their colleagues, whatever contract they are on, feel that they are appropriately rewarded and supported to give their best for students.”

Ms Grady said universities should disclose the “the real extent of the problem” and release figures to the union. 

“We need to have an honest conversation about casualisation that draws out the real extent of the problem and how we can secure improvements for staff. The Office for Students (OfS) should demand that universities disclose the extent of teaching – measured in classroom hours – that is being done by casualised staff. Students would be shocked by the levels of casualisation in universities and the toll that being in insecure employment takes on people,” Ms Grady said. 

The OfS – the HE watchdog – does not have the same remit as its predecessor organisation, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which used to produce workforce frameworks for the sector. The OfS, which regulates on behalf of students, does not investigate universities’ approach to human resources. 

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