The recent Guardian coverage of insecure contracts in universities (that followed Times Higher Education’s article on the same topic earlier this year) put the UK higher education sector’s exploitative employment model firmly in the public eye.
Many people would have been shocked at University and College Union’s research on the number of people on an insecure contract, and appalled at their working conditions and remuneration.
At a time when the sector really needs to be working hard on its reputation, one would hope for a strong and robust response from universities. Unfortunately, it appears that they have reverted to a tried and failed tactic of arguing over figures in the hope that the problem will disappear.
We have seen this approach in other embarrassments for the sector.
When quizzed about the eye-watering salary increases enjoyed by vice-chancellors and heavily criticised in the national press, they argue that it is remuneration committees that set these salaries, not vice-chancellors themselves – as if that is the point. Remuneration committees mean little to anyone reading a story about an inflation-busting pay rise for a boss while the workers are getting a raw deal once again.
The lack of self-awareness from universities and their vice-chancellors on these issues has been damaging for the sector. The usual response to embarrassment is to shoot the messenger and hope that the problem goes away, but that won’t wash when the sector is in the spotlight and teaching and research are built on an exploitative employment model.
As we try to ensure that universities are not hit by unfair restrictions on staff or funding cuts, we need the sector to be portraying itself in a positive light, and that means properly addressing the issue of insecure contracts.
There is a problem with casualisation and the exploitative use of these types of contracts in higher education. Great teachers need proper support and students deserve to be taught by people who have time to focus on delivering high-quality teaching and are not travelling between multiple jobs at different campuses.
For too long it has been this sector’s dirty little secret. However, the cat is now out of the bag and, while it is disappointing that it has taken this long to expose these sorts of practices, we need universities to demonstrate that they will do something about it.
This is not the time to look around and try to find something to deflect attention from the academic working as a binman to try and make ends meet. Arguing that casualisation aids the sector, where experts are brought in on an ad hoc basis, would not be so silly if universities didn’t try to pretend that this entirely accounted for their atypical academic staff.
Sadly, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association tried to claim that atypical academics are “skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses”. In the Ucea parallel universe, atypical academics are presumably a reserve army of 75,000 barristers, composers, business gurus and investment bankers turning out en masse to spice up university courses.
That is of course pure fiction. UCU’s analysis of the data returned to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) showed that, nationally, 45 per cent of atypical academic teaching staff are on the lowest pay points on the scale. And in the Russell Group universities, those who shouted loudest, 69 per cent of atypical academics are paid at teaching assistant or research assistant rates, or lower.
If this is a reserve army of specialist professional labour, it’s not charging a very good hourly rate.
Trying to quibble over statistics is a sorry response to a serious problem. And only highlights the paucity of data in the area anyway. For years we have been calling on universities to provide clear data on the extent of casual contracts in higher education. Their refusal now looks like nothing more than an attempt to confuse the issue by interpreting what little data there is in a different way.
From the academic working part time as a binman to the implementation of inferior contracts to avoid employment rights and keep costs down, the truth is that this issue is not going to go away. We need a proper response from the sector at a time when its reputation really does matter and we are determined to secure improvements.
We hope that universities will now work with us to achieve them.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.