Ca­sual teach­ers unite

Sup­port staff did it – now it’s your turn

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Steven Parfitt is a teach­ing fel­low in his­tory at Lough­bor­ough Uni­ver­sity.

Ear­lier this year, aca­demics across the UK went on strike to de­fend their pensions. Thou­sands braved snow and icy rain on the picket lines. Af­ter 14 days they beat back the worst of the pro­posed changes to the Uni­ver­si­ties Su­per­an­nu­a­tion Scheme. Try to imag­ine the same bat­tle over ca­su­al­i­sa­tion and, like me, you will prob­a­bly draw a blank.

Like their coun­ter­parts all over the world, Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties have, over the past 20 years, steadily dumped as much teach­ing as pos­si­ble on aca­demics work­ing on a va­ri­ety of short-term and ca­sual con­tracts. Of­fi­cial fig­ures re­gard­ing this trend have been cu­ri­ously sparse, with the UK’s Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics Agency, up un­til last year, not com­pil­ing data on how many hourly paid or zero-hours staff were on uni­ver­sity books. How­ever, a Uni­ver­sity and Col­lege Union (UCU) re­port in 2016 found that al­most half of teach­ing staff at UK uni­ver­si­ties were on “in­se­cure” con­tracts. That fig­ure is dis­puted by em­ploy­ers, but it is beyond ar­gu­ment that the ca­reers of many young aca­demics – such as my­self – now be­gin with a long span of in­se­cure work on low pay.

Ca­su­al­i­sa­tion gen­er­ates plenty of out­rage, ex­pressed in blogs, so­cial me­dia posts and the pages of Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion. The UCU now has an anti-ca­su­al­i­sa­tion com­mit­tee, and

the is­sue is plas­tered over the union’s web­site. Here and there, ca­sual staff form groups to win small im­prove­ments in pay and con­di­tions, and shave some of the rougher ex­ploita­tive edges off their con­tracts. Their work has been im­por­tant, even cru­cial, but it is not enough by it­self to bring ca­su­al­i­sa­tion to an end.

Only one in 10 UK vice-chan­cel­lors who re­sponded to THE’s re­cent global Uni­ver­sity Lead­ers Sur­vey on the fu­ture of higher ed­u­ca­tion ex­pects ca­su­al­i­sa­tion to in­crease be­tween now and 2030, com­pared with nearly three-quar­ters who do not. And some uni­ver­si­ties, it is true, are be­gin­ning to pare back some kinds of short-term con­tracts. Yet there are few signs that uni­ver­sity man­agers will re­verse on their own ini­tia­tive a trend that they them­selves put in train. And it is worth not­ing that UK lead­ers’ views are very much the ex­cep­tion: across the globe, nearly half of re­spon­dents ex­pect ca­su­al­i­sa­tion to in­crease, com­pared with less than a third who don’t.

There is cer­tainly no prospect that, as some peo­ple as­sert, the ca­su­alised sys­tem will col­lapse on its own as stress and un­der­pay drive down the qual­ity of teach­ing and wreck the rep­u­ta­tion of UK higher ed­u­ca­tion. For ev­ery ca­sual teacher who can’t cope and drops out, new PhDs come through to re­place them. They, not the sys­tem, snap first.

To end this trail of bro­ken ca­reers, those of us on ca­sual con­tracts need to think again about the ways and means to re­dress our griev­ances.

We don’t even have to look beyond the cam­pus gates for in­spi­ra­tion. Over the past few years, clean­ers, cater­ers, se­cu­rity guards, porters and other peo­ple who keep UK uni­ver­si­ties clean, fed and se­cure have taken ac­tion to im­prove their own lot. At the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, the Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don and other in­sti­tu­tions, they have won the Lon­don liv­ing wage, bet­ter hol­i­day and sick pay and the re­ver­sal of job cuts.

Some of th­ese vic­to­ries have been won through new, small unions, such as the In­de­pen­dent Work­ers of Great Bri­tain, United Voices of the World and the Clean­ers and Al­lied In­de­pen­dent Work­ers Union. Some have come through larger, more es­tab­lished unions such as Uni­son and Unite, or older in­de­pen­dent ones such as the In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World. What unites all of them is the de­ter­mi­na­tion to make in­vis­i­ble work­ers vis­i­ble.

They have protested, gone on strike and won sup­port from stu­dents. By bang­ing drums and caus­ing a fuss they have achieved more than they would have done had they merely trusted to the good­will of uni­ver­si­ties.

And they have done all this with­out the ad­van­tages en­joyed by aca­demics on ca­sual con­tracts: plat­forms to write and make them­selves heard. Ca­sual teach­ers should take note. We might not be in­vis­i­ble, but the terms of our em­ploy­ment are. We must make those terms vis­i­ble to our stu­dents in a way that uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tions can’t ig­nore.

If that means protests, even strikes or other forms of ac­tion, then so be it. If the UCU will lead it, fine. If it means a new move­ment, or an ar­range­ment with the new unions, that’s fine too. The only al­ter­na­tives are to go on as be­fore, or to hold out in the hope that we will each find our own way out of the ca­su­alised trap and into per­ma­nent work.

Other work­ers on cam­pus don’t have that hope. That, per­haps, is part of the se­cret to their suc­cess. They har­bour no il­lu­sions about some pleas­ant al­ter­na­tive just out of sight: they have to make the best of the job they have now. And we must fol­low them. Be­cause while the sta­tus quo might be sus­tain­able for uni­ver­si­ties, it is not for us.

For ev­ery ca­sual teacher who can’t cope and drops out, new PhDs come through to re­place them. They, not the sys­tem, snap first

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