Covid-19 shows up UK universities’ shameful employment practices

One byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic has been to focus attention on the precariousness of so many people’s economic circumstances: working long hours, yet one step away from destitution. This should, in truth, not be news to any of us, but there is so much from which we avert our gaze. And in universities, that gaze has in recent years been averted, above all, from the plight of temporary and part-time academic staff.

According to recent figures, 54% of university staff [pdf] are employed on some form of insecure contract, most of them women, making them cheaper and more easily sacked. In many universities, up to a third of the teaching is provided by such staff, and 46% of universities use zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching.

In some contexts, such as for particular research projects, fixed-term contracts may be appropriate, and some experience of teaching can be a valuable part of postgraduates’ career preparation. But what has been happening goes far, far beyond such categories.

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The “marketisation” of universities in the past decade has changed their ethos as well as their funding. Older notions of an academic community, or a scholarly career, have been replaced by economic analyses that look to reduce unit costs per output. Replacing permanent staff with cheaper, disposable temporary ones, reduces the power of academics and increases that of managers.

I have written before about the daily erosion of integrity in universities, but one of its worst manifestations is the collusion, witting or unwitting, of practically every member of the institution in the exploitation of this vulnerable group. Older, established academics are often unaware of what is going on. When I gave a talk two years ago to a national gathering of members of the academic precariat, I was assailed with stories about universities’ shortsighted and inhumane practices towards them.

There was the young woman who, the day after she had finished the final teaching assignment of a five-month contract, went to the university library to make a fresh start on her research, only to find that her library privileges had been withdrawn at midnight on the day of her last class. There was the one-semester teaching fellow who had a word-of-mouth agreement with his manager about his hours and pay, but at the end of his first month the university’s finance department insisted he be paid at a lower rate. Cumulatively, the stories painted a shameful picture.

A typical temporary or part-time staff member is likely to be a woman in her late 20s or early 30s, in possession of a doctorate, a string of publications, and several years’ teaching experience, probably gained at a number of different institutions on contracts of varying length.

In each job she has prepared new courses to fit in with the existing syllabus, with little chance of being able to re-use the material. She has had to find temporary accommodation in each new place. If her temporary post was replacing a full-time member of staff on a year’s leave, she will be lucky to get a nine-month appointment, the assumption being that she can eat thin air for the remaining three months.

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She may have been turned down for appointments, both permanent and temporary, because she had not published enough in the previous three years (the “upward curve” beloved of appointments committees), though not one of her temporary posts made provision for research time. She may be suffering from depression and anxiety; she may well be in debt; she is, understandably, becoming bitter.

And that bitterness may now turn to desperation, for some managers, far from attempting to provide proper support for this category of staff during the lockdown, are seeing it as an opportunity to terminate short-term contracts. Their thinking? “There is less teaching to do; ergo, we need fewer people to do it (indeed, with luck, the temporary use of online teaching will become permanent and then we can get rid of nearly all our teaching staff). These people are not our responsibility; if they were any good, they would have permanent jobs by now; anyway, if they don’t like it, they should go and do something else…”

This response to the pandemic simply highlights what has gone so badly wrong with many universities’ employment practices.

Will universities change as a result of the lockdown? They will surely make more use of online teaching. They will probably experiment with shorter, or non-residential, courses. They will most likely receive less income from overseas students for years to come. They may have to erect fewer shiny new buildings. They may have to appoint fewer expensive middle managers (no, I suppose not). They may even have to pay their vice-chancellors less (silly me).

But will they assure students that they will mostly be taught by permanent members of the academic staff? Will they make much less use of temporary and part-time teachers while guaranteeing proper contracts and working conditions, including providing research time, for those they do employ? It is a cause worth fighting for – but don’t hold your breath.

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