Thousands of temporary staff in the higher education sector face unemployment this autumn, the sector’s largest union warned today as it called on its members to join a campaign to fight redundancies.
Institutions have already announced recruitment freezes, cuts to hourly contracts and a review of fixed-term staff ahead of an anticipated drop in student recruitment.
Universities have been caught up in an economic storm following the coronavirus pandemic and are battling to stop their finances nosediving.
Several separate reports have warned that university finances could be sent into tailspin next year if student numbers drop significantly. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that as much as £19bn of revenue is under threat.
The University and College Union (UCU) is calling on its 120,000 members to join its 10 pledges campaign to protect staff employed on fixed-term or insecure contracts. The union wants university employees to write to their MPs and get involved in anti-precarity campaigns on campus. The union is also calling on staff to discuss the impact the loss of temporary staff would have on their department’s teaching and research activities.
“Students would be stunned to learn how much of their teaching is done by staff who have no real security and don’t even know if they’ll have a job this year,” said UCU’s general secretary Jo Grady. “Universities rely on an army of insecure staff who have no more rights than other members of the gig economy.”
The union says the jobs of more than a thousand fixed-term staff at King’s College London are under review. It also warns more than 600 staff at the University of Liverpool, more than 400 staff at Goldsmiths and close to 300 staff at Essex also face unemployment.
The University of Sheffield has allowed 116 fixed-term contracts to expire and, according to a statement given to the Financial Times, most remaining fixed-term posts at Sheffield under review until 2020-21 enrolment figures are confirmed. The University of Reading’s vice-chancellor last month said a worst-case scenario would mean losing the equivalent of 500 full-time jobs.
UCU members at the Royal College of Art in London passed a vote of no confidence in the vice-chancellor and threatened strike action. The union estimates that more than 90% of RCA staff are at risk and 200 of them are risk of unemployment.
Universities have made promises that they will be delivering high-quality teaching both online and face-to-face in the autumn. You cannot deliver that by sacking thousands of people – Jo Grady, UCU
The union said universities rely on an army of insecure workers that have no more rights than other members of the gig economy and could find themselves out of work with little warning or chance of finding alternative work.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), 33% of academic staff in the UK were on fixed-term contracts in 2017-18. UCU analysis shows that black and minority ethnic staff are more likely to be on employed on fixed-term contracts (42%) than their white counterparts (31%).
Dr Grady continued: “Universities have made promises that they will be delivering high-quality teaching both online and face-to-face in the autumn. You cannot deliver that by sacking thousands of people. With just weeks until the start of the new academic year, universities still are not coming clean about their plans and what they will mean for the tens of thousands of staff on insecure contracts and with an uncertain future.
“Universities are cutting budgets for casual staff and refusing to renew fixed-term contracts, when they should be extending them for the whole duration of this crisis. We can’t trust our senior managers to look out for our most vulnerable colleagues so we have to take their security into our own hands.”