TeachHigher, wages lower? Beware the outsourcers’ razor

Benjamin Poore calls on universities to reject plans likely to make hourly paid lecturers’ lot poorer and more precarious

April 23, 2015

Source: Daniel Mitchell

TeachHigher erroneously posted what transpired to be a ‘test’ job advert that suggested paying TAs £5 an hour

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the English National Opera’s acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Some lines from the end of act one resonated with me. “For what’s the sound of the world out there?”, the demon barber booms, “Those crunching noises pervading the air! It’s man devouring man, my dear!”

As unlikely as it may seem, I was rather put in mind of news of the launch of TeachHigher by the University of Warwick (“Central unit causes concern over conditions for hourly paid staff”, News, 16 April). TeachHigher is, a page on Warwick’s website rather cheerfully proclaims, “a new Academic Services Department, created to assist those seeking interim teaching or research assignments at Warwick, and to assist academic departments in engaging hourly paid teachers and researchers”. Warwick will engage TeachHigher to organise its hourly paid teaching assistants in a number of departments from this autumn, presumably with the hope that this service will be franchised out to other institutions in future.

What gives TeachHigher its competitive edge is that it offers universities the opportunity to employ hourly paid staff through an external agency and not directly. This has a number of significant ramifications. It engenders a race to the bottom in terms of wages – the most vulnerable academics in the profession need to furnish their CVs with teaching experience, and they also need cash. While a spokesman for Warwick told Times Higher Education that pay rates would be derived from nationally agreed framework scales for higher education, the University and College Union remains “very concerned” and says that it has not been made clear how staff will be paid.

Recently TeachHigher erroneously posted what transpired to be a “test” job advertisement that suggested employing teaching assistants at a rate of £5 an hour. A mistake for sure – but as Freud reminds us, the parapraxis, or unintended action, often reveals an unconscious wish.

When TeachHigher takes over the organisation of TA provision at Warwick, a key difference is that TAs will be employed by a “Temporary Worker Agreement” for particular “assignments”. Such staff will not be employed directly by the university, and while TeachHigher will recognise unions, closer inspection of the “Agreement” indicates that workers can be summarily dismissed and their employment brought to an end “without prior notice or liability”. Joining industrial action in such a situation would hardly seem inviting.

So TeachHigher will be profiteering from the cut-throat competitiveness of the jobs market and the desperation of young academics trying to get ahead. The attempt to ramp up “competition” between early career academics will do nothing to help already widespread depression and ill health among postgraduate researchers, reported by THE just the other week.

Cathryn Setz, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford, approached TeachHigher to learn about their plans for expansion and hourly rates of pay. “I received a cold and clipped reply, directing me back to their management-speak site, and answering nothing,” she tells me. Setz feels that any further erosion of pay and conditions will force weary postgrads and postdocs out of the profession. “If this is the future for higher education…I’m out.”

The TeachHigher model impacts on teaching too. The bespoke courses that departments pride themselves on will be delivered by agency workers many steps removed from their creation. Pam Thurschwell, senior lecturer in English at the University of Sussex, says that TeachHigher “could easily turn into a losing proposition…if enough people in high places took a stand against it. It’s not as if our students or our students’ parents want teaching at their university outsourced and casualised.”

TeachHigher insists that taking control of hourly paid staff at Warwick will help to erase inconsistencies between different departments’ employment practices and remuneration (in one department you may be paid to attend a lecture; in another, you may not). But this noble sentiment begs the question of why Warwick’s management doesn’t intervene to improve conditions on behalf of casualised staff.

Ultimately this development is the symptom of a greater malaise, and postgraduates and postdocs have had enough. Grassroots campaigns at Soas and Goldsmiths, University of London, have won significant concessions from university management, including pay increases and fractional contracts. TeachHigher’s dislocation of teaching staff from the institution in which they teach stands in the way of such progress.

But, as free-market hardliner Milton Friedman used to say, crises are critical. And like Mrs Lovett in her pie shop, or the entrepreneurially minded denizens of TeachHigher, I hear opportunity knocking. The time has come for the sector to get its house in order. This is a chance for university leaders to stand apart from their more unscrupulous cousins and behave in a way that defends the integrity and collegiality of the university as a teaching institution. This is not how we do business, they should say. They can respond by remunerating their TAs fairly for the work that they do. They can give hourly paid staff proper contracts and iron out discrepancies in pay between departments. They can provide thorough, subject-specific training for their teachers, run by their own departments.

Otherwise, I’ll be writing to ENO with an avant-garde suggestion: perhaps they might consider setting their next production of Sweeney Todd in the cloisters of the contemporary university. “The history of the world, my sweet!”, Todd roars, “Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”

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