A report released by the University and College Union today paints a grim, but accurate, picture of life on casual contracts. Respondents talk about the difficulties of trying to make ends meet, hours of unpaid work, a lack of facilities and the impact that this is having on their health and students’ education.
All of this rings true with me, but the thing that is difficult to portray is the absolute chaos of struggling on casual contracts and the bureaucratic nightmares you encounter. Last week, for instance, my hourly paid lecturer contract at a UK university came to an end – just as it has every June for the past six years. That means that I am now officially unemployed and completing my latest application for state benefits.
Despite being out of work and with no salary, I have just received an email from the university informing me that I need to get resits marked and returned within a fortnight. So not only do I have the indignity of having to sign on again today, I have to complete work out of contract and unpaid, too. I have notified the relevant government authorities that I am now unemployed and available for work. But I’m not. I’m still working for the university.
As well as the annual signing on at the end of the contract, I have an annual signing in and even more bureaucratic nightmares when I start back again in October. My staff card gets blocked and I have to get Estates to let me into my classrooms and allow me to use university services such as printers.
I get a new email and a new set of induction instructions every year. I then have to get IT services to reinstall my email and then merge it with my old ones (at the last count, I had 10 merged email addresses).
My pension also gets stopped over the summer and I have to call the scheme in October to tell them I am still employed. They tell me that I have to get HR to get in touch, but HR say I am not on a contract until it has been authorised. I have to call the tax authorities to tell them I am on a new contract, but I cannot apply for working tax credit or child tax credit as I don’t actually have the contract yet. This can take up to three months to come through and I miss out on hundreds of pounds to help pay my rent and bills.
It’s a similar story when I try to apply for tax credits or a council tax reduction. They say they cannot calculate my benefits as they haven’t seen an amended contract. In addition, my employer forgot to put any money into my pension for six years, despite taking the money from my pay. This took weeks of emails and dozens of phone calls to sort out.
Last year I went over my contracted number of hours on my contract. This resulted in my wages being stopped for 12 weeks, as extra hours needed to be signed off at the very top. As a result, I couldn’t pay my rent for two months. In the end, the UCU stepped in with emergency funds to cover the rent. Otherwise, I was at risk of being made homeless.
Doing unpaid admin chasing up HR over missing hours and late contracts every year is galling, stressful and time-consuming. It is also very time-consuming for the admin and management staff who spend inordinate amounts of time and energy untangling pretty similar messes every year. All this could easily be avoided if I had a fixed, fractional contract. It would also allow me to spend more time with my students; under my current contract I have 30 minutes tutorial time per week with up to 28 students per cohort – just over one minute per student. This is clearly failing the students and compromising my excellent professional reputation.
I am not alone in this Groundhog Day nightmare scenario, and today’s report from UCU will hopefully lift the lid on the reality of life on these sorts of contracts. It is intolerable to live under a constant cloud of worry and anxiety. Something has to change.
The author works at a post-92 university in the English Midlands.