Students graduating from UK universities and entering a hostile global economic climate with tens of thousands of pounds of debt are right to fear for their futures. What they probably don’t realise is that most of the highly qualified experts who teach them face the same insecurity year in, year out.
Earlier this month, a campaign group, Fighting Against Casualisation in Education, revealed that up to a third of staff at some institutions are on teaching-only contracts (“Universities ‘most reliant’ on teaching-only staff named”, News, 15 March). And data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that less than two-thirds of the UK’s academics are on permanent contracts. The rest make a living by patching together fixed-term, hourly-paid, fractional and zero-hours contracts, often at more than one institution. Time not devoted to marking and preparation is spent on job applications, in the hope of striking lucky on a permanent post or just making ends meet next term. Research and writing, vital to transforming a vocation into a career, are bought with sacrifices from the schedule of a normal life: relaxation, friendship and sleep.
Labouring under these precarious conditions makes it hard for academics to organise against them. Yet, as Times Higher Education has reported (“‘We’re worth more’: casual teaching staff fight back”, Feature, 27 August 2015), growing numbers of graduate students and academics are becoming involved in grass-roots anti-casualisation campaigns. Where they have led, the University and College Union is following. Its general secretary, Sally Hunt, has spoken out against casualisation both in print and before Parliament. At the end of January, the union wrote to the heads of UK higher education institutions seeking to enter negotiations “with the express aim of increasing job security, continuity of employment and opportunities for career progression for all staff engaged in any forms of teaching and/or research”. Casualisation, it says, “should be a source of shame for our universities”.
Some blame this situation on oversupply in the academic labour market but that is only a small part of the story. There is more academic work out there than can be done by existing permanent faculty. How that work is organised and funded is an operational – and ultimately political – decision taken by university administrations. Right now, it suits them to choose flexibility for themselves over security for their employees. With strategic action, workers can shift the balance of that equation.
Industrial action can be hard to pull off for public sector workers, because those immediately inconvenienced are not our bosses but the people we serve. The recent junior doctors’ strike, however, showed that action against unfair pay and conditions – which have harmful effects on the work done – can win broad public support. Doctors relied on an emotionally resonant idea of what the NHS is all about. A similar strategy for higher education would mean connecting the details of casualisation to a positive and inspiring vision of the UK’s life-transforming and world-leading universities, making the point that society gains immeasurably, not just from the skills we impart and the technology we invent, but from the cultural and intellectual resources fostered by our teaching and research.
Pickets and demonstrations at public-facing events such as open days and graduations would focus attention on the enormous discrepancy between sky-rocketing fees and increasingly desperate conditions for those actually doing the teaching. This strategy must not rely on treating higher education as another service industry. Students are justifiably concerned about what they are spending so much money on, but they do not want to be treated as customers. At the same time, though, we can make use of the structural shift caused by the tuition fee regime, which seeks to make institutions compete for students. Publicising universities’ employment practices would incentivise improvement, as would student union support in calling out the worst offenders.
The ultimate logic is simple. The harder we make it for universities to exploit the dedication of young academics and fob off students with insecure and underpaid lecturers, the easier they will find it to put resources into permanent positions.
Tom Cutterham is the Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford.