It is my first day as an assistant lecturer in the humanities at a university in the South of England. I don’t want to be late and make a bad impression, so I leave home two hours before my lecture is scheduled to start. Around here, buses are predictable only with respect to their unreliability, and the few hours of paid work I have will eventually absorb more than six hours of my day. When I do make it home, I’ll be greeted by my forlorn thesis draft, which awaits my return and needs to be finished.
As the first session with a new class always induces some nerves, on the journey in I try to distract myself by reading a book. Unthinkingly, I’ve packed William Golding’s Pincher Martin: a taut novel that sustains a sense of anxiety. My choice soon appears apt. The story follows a sailor who, after his ship is torpedoed and he is tossed into the Atlantic Ocean, scrapes his sodden body on to a rock, exerts himself in the cold to forage for scraps of food, and attempts to retain his sanity by talking to himself. I’m soaked from waiting in the rain for the bus and cannot resist the comparison.
Like many other graduate students, I need scraps of teaching to survive. Today’s session is one of several teaching commitments. My thesis is nearing completion but my funding has evaporated, so I am fortunate to have found some work in a nearby university. However, as the bus meanders along and I overhear students disparaging their assignments and lecturers with increasingly colourful language, I cannot help wondering whether my efforts will be worth it.
At the university, there is no office space for temporary staff, so I head to the campus cafe. Like much of the UK, it is privatised. I cannot justify buying an expensive coffee just to sit comfortably, so I turn away from the soft seats, which are reserved for customers, and find a wooden bench in the corner. Slowly, the space fills with students as lecture time nears. Looking around, I become aware of other older faces: people perched on the peripheral benches buried in piles of marking, or reading the only open books in the room. These are academic staff, people priced to the edges of their own workplace as the gentrification of higher education continues apace.
I purloin a cup of water and review my lecture resources. In this department, most course “content” is slathered on to PowerPoint. The students expect it; presumably it reminds them of school. I quickly discover their aversion to lectures that revolve around listening and discussion, their resistance to independent thinking, and their lack of interest in sustained engagement with textual sources. Later I am told, perhaps apocryphally, that one can finish an undergraduate degree here without ever reading a whole book.
Temporary lecturers are expected to accept teaching assignments just weeks before term starts because lectures and presentation materials are, purportedly, pre-prepared; I am expected to effortlessly assimilate the work of another mind. In practice, our intellectual inheritance is frequently limited: an array of hastily assembled PowerPoint presentations replete with illegible text and hermetic references to outdated research. When I received my own lecture resources, they challenged my sense of what “content” is expected to look like, from a student’s perspective. It was hard to imagine that a salaried academic had managed to produce such a mishmash of decaying research, pop culture references and political insensitivity. A few days before my first lecture, I had to confront a choice familiar to many in my position: either deliver the material I was given or work unpaid to improve it. In the end, a sense of foretold shame and embarrassment ignited a sense of scholarly duty and I spent a few hours modifying the material. This was to become a regular part of my routine in subsequent weeks.
I enter the lecture theatre. Usually, I would spend time introducing myself and getting to know my students. Here, I first have to grapple with the technology required to deliver my slides. There are between 50 and 60 students, most of them on their mobile phones (Apple narrowly trumps Samsung). A quick calculation reminds me that this roomful of undergraduates is worth more than half a million pounds a year to the university in tuition fees alone. I wish the students knew how much I was being paid. (It would be like telling supermarket customers how their supposedly wholesome sausages are really made.)
The teaching goes well in the way that an opening night at the theatre goes well: no one spots the mistakes or the tape holding everything together at the seams. Unlike Broadway, however, the “10 per cent rule” applies. Only six people are visibly interested and willing to contribute. They are my companions on the isolated rock of academia, and it is only because of them that I narrowly avoid talking to myself.
As the term goes on, I feel increasingly sorry for those six students. They are trapped by their marginally higher expectations and their desire to learn. Their phones remain hidden; they read; they are not afraid of perplexity. Hopefully they will experience more collegial environments in future, if they continue to study.
The 10 per cent never email me spuriously. They take guidance and conduct independent research. Everyone else emails me all the time; I get an endless cascade of requests and questions that I’m expected to manage seven days a week (while being accommodating of their late assignments). My favourite subgenre is the “I know you told us not to email you, but…”
As deadlines near, unsurprisingly, the nonchalance, assertiveness and sense of entitlement of the majority wither faster than a vice-chancellor can announce a new initiative. All they want to know is: “How do I get the grade I want?” Sadly, they never ask me about what I think they could achieve, with effort. Everyone here, from the students upwards, seems to be wrestling with the tension between a latent awareness that things could be better and the prevailing apathy. I have taught undergraduates before, but this is the first time I have seen an educational institution give up. My experiences here have stripped off higher education’s vestigial sheen and forced me to confront the exploitative underbelly of this contemporary university.
Most forms of labour are demanding and frequently unfulfilling, and academics have no automatic right to anything different. Too many are blind to the material preconditions of their employment, to the fact that their efforts are a form of labour within a system that delivers economic benefits to others. Those who start down an academic path, after years of invested thought, time and money, are choked by ideology that lauds assistant lectureships, tutorial teaching and scraps of work as necessary “experience”. This is true to a point, but the argument fails when diminishing marginal returns set in. Another course, more hours of teaching, further rounds of PowerPoint slides and emails – none of it necessarily makes one a better teacher. In fact, reliance on short-term teaching harms everyone in higher education except the few who benefit when the meagre savings are siphoned into legacy buildings or marketing strategies.
Assistant lecturers occupy a precarious position on the payroll, in terms of their poor remuneration and the instability of their income – both familiar pressures on mental health. This precariousness usually fails to reflect the volume of teaching they do. Some assistant lecturers do more teaching than salaried staff while lacking employment benefits, security and respect. The contingent and temporary nature of the work, combined with the last-minute nature of its organisation, incentivises poor teaching. Lacking time and institutional familiarity, assistant lecturers struggle to develop ideas or create new ways of motivating student “customers” with low expectations. Of course, temporary teachers are not supported as researchers. Indeed, from an institutional point of view, they are not researchers at all. Thus a gulf widens between the scraps of work they do to pay bills and the research that initially drew them into academia.
Students are also harmed by universities’ addiction to ad hoc teaching. Although they pay £9,000 a year, undergraduates are taught by reserve troops of impoverished graduates: people incentivised to improvise, people who may not have experience in the courses they teach, people who are exploited. Despite this, most graduates work tirelessly, even if their work is made harder by a poor educational infrastructure that excludes them from the resources that should support their teaching.
The reliance on temporary, underpaid labour fuels an intractable cycle. As in the cafe, so in the classroom: students are now consumers, regardless of their wishes. Consequently, they are encouraged to demand attention and input when it suits them; they are not encouraged to engage with a subject for its own sake. Students are located in a system of teaching provision that motivates weak responses to these consumerist attitudes, for they are taught by lecturers who are as disposable, from a managerial perspective, as the money students represent in fees. In a time of austerity, with a growing gap between the numbers achieving PhDs and available jobs, it is no surprise that temporary staff are unable to freely critique the departments they support.
Finally, in addition to the damage this system does to individual teachers and students alike, higher education suffers as a whole. Energetic assistant lecturers who remain motivated to research could serve as role models for academically minded students. But they sit unsupported and aloof within teaching infrastructures that would collapse if their labour were withdrawn. Reliance on temporary teaching constrains the courses that students experience: the only courses that will be offered are those that fit easily on to PowerPoint, are instantly understandable and are deliverable by untrained graduates between bouts of thesis editing.
Despite the inspirational rhetoric one may hear from university leaders, quality teaching is valued less than the simple provision of information that remains divorced from contemporary enquiry and passionate reflection. Teaching lacks depth when it is distributed and discarded as regularly as the temporary lecturers themselves because disposable, itinerant teachers cannot successively deepen their engagement with the course material; they will never attain the profundity that arises from rereading, rethinking and reflecting on the relationship between core themes and contemporary challenges to their relevance.
One can live off scraps, just about, but crumbs and scrapings do not amount to a meal. Departments can patch together hastily delivered courses for their students, but such offerings do not add up to a valuable learning experience. Do the many “customers” in contemporary higher education who are now paying exorbitant fees realise that they are receiving the cheapest “product”? At the very least, they should know what they are paying for.
The author has asked to not be identified.
The young and the not so young alike are feeling the pinch
Carole Leathwood and Barbara Read take the pulse of the insecure academy
Things are not easy for today’s younger generation – and that includes those attempting to gain entry to a career in academia. Securing a full-time and permanent academic post seems to be more difficult than ever, with fixed-term, hourly paid and zero-hours contracts apparently the order of the day.
When secure posts are advertised, competition is fierce. An investigation by Times Higher Education in November found that up to 200 applicants regularly compete for each early career post at Russell Group universities (“Hundreds vie for every early career position”, 6 November 2014).
And if that were not bad enough for those trying to establish an academic career, a report by the Intergenerational Foundation – Higher Education: A Tale of Two Payslips, published in July 2014 – found that pay levels for more junior academic posts have increased far more slowly than those for vice-chancellors and senior professors, while changes to pensions mean that younger staff in the Universities Superannuation Scheme are likely to be significantly worse off than those retiring now. The report concludes that “thanks to a toxic combination of job cuts, student debt and pension changes, young people entering the academic profession in the coming years will have it worse than ever before”.
We have conducted research exploring what appears to be an increasing level of precarious employment and insecurity in the world of academia.
There is no doubt that concerns about early career academics permeate the sector. Many of our participants report that it has become far tougher to secure a permanent post – both because competition for the limited number of such posts is intense, and because the bar to entry has become ever higher. We heard accounts of how applicants now need a PhD, a publication record (including 3* and 4* outputs) and, in some cases, one or more research grants to stand any chance of gaining an entry-level post. Many hoping for an academic career are currently precariously clinging on by their fingernails, moving from one very short contract to another – if they are lucky. One participant talked about her fears of being unable to pay the rent before securing a two-year contract – which to her and her peers feels “practically permanent”.
In contrast, a more senior academic told us that he had not had to take on any teaching-only or sessional contracts during his career. “I managed to get a permanent academic post before getting my PhD and I was promoted last year,” he explained, before adding that “things would probably be quite different if I was finishing my PhD now.”
But this is not a simple story of inter-generational disadvantage. The same academic went on to tell us: “I wish it wasn’t the case, but being a straight white man probably has something to do with it, too.” Some female participants spoke about how difficult it was decades ago for women to get a foot on the ladder, recounting stories of repeat temporary contracts. One who had followed that route in the late 1960s and early 1970s argued that “almost always there has been a difference for men and women especially [for those trying to make the transition] from research to ‘academic’ – and now the divide between teaching-only and research is making matters worse”.
It has never been easy for women trying to establish and build a career in academia, but academic life appears to have got tougher for almost everyone. If you are on a teaching-only, hourly paid or fixed-term research contract, the opportunities to develop a research profile and progress to more senior levels are limited – and female and ethnic minority academics are more likely to be on such contracts.
Mid-career academics, meanwhile, expressed concerns about often impossible demands for income generation and 3* or 4* publications on top of high teaching and administrative loads, so it is not only the younger generation who are feeling “the pinch”, to quote David Willetts, the former universities and science minister.
Some of our participants felt that problems had escalated in the past few years as competition in the higher education market has further intensified. There seems to be an individualised “sink or swim” culture, in which those trying to get in are reliant on grace and favour for a few scraps (a handful of teaching hours, some short-term research contracts) while those who have “made it” are continually driven to prove and re-prove their worth.
It is time for us all to stand up against the casualisation of the sector – and the rampant inequalities that are rife within it.
Zero Points: the persistence of temporary measures
Looking at the official statistics on the use of fixed-term contracts in universities over the past decade, one might imagine that working life for academics had become a little more secure of late. But these numbers do not tell the whole story, according to the University and College Union.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in 2013-14, 36 per cent of full- and part-time academic staff were on fixed-term contracts, down from 45 per cent a decade earlier. Over the same period, the proportion of academic staff on permanent contracts rose from 55 per cent to 64 per cent. Others were on contracts classed as “atypical”.
But these figures mask the true extent of casualisation in higher education, says the UCU. Jonathan White, the union’s bargaining and negotiations officer, explains that academics on zero-hours contracts, for example, could be counted as atypical, fixed-term or permanent staff, despite their having only a term-by-term understanding of the hours they are required to work.
Last month, the UCU published the results of a survey of 2,500 members in further and higher education institutions. It found that 55 per cent were on fixed-term contracts, rising to 70 per cent of those on research-only contracts, and 20 per cent were on zero-hours contracts.
Meanwhile, 14 per cent had a gross monthly income of less than £500, and about a third of those on fixed-term or casualised contracts struggled to pay their bills.
These contracts persist despite legislation that came into force in 2006 to help bolster the rights of workers on insecure contracts. That year, new amendments to a 2002 regulation on the equal treatment of fixed-term workers meant that employers wanting to renew the contract of fixed-term staff with four or more years of continuous service and one contract renewal had to provide an objective justification of why they could not make the post permanent.
White says that although universities have implemented the policy “as far as possible”, some try to keep the wording of what constitutes an objective justification for a fixed-term contract as “vague as possible”, allowing the use of such contracts to continue. Universities argue that the short-term nature of research funding denies them the certainty needed to grant permanent contracts.
The UCU also believes that universities took on more zero-hours staff to get around the regulations. “What you are actually seeing is just one form of contract not being used quite so much as it was before,” White says of the apparent decline in fixed-term positions.
There is another troubling side to fixed-term contracts. Academics on such contracts are more likely to be young, female and from black or ethnic minority groups, according to the Equality Challenge Unit’s Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2014.
The report shows that 60 per cent of academic staff aged 40 and under are on fixed-term contracts. Across all age groups, 39 per cent of female academics are on fixed-term contracts, compared with 33 per cent of male academics. As for UK-born black and ethnic minority academics, 36 per cent of them are in fixed-term posts, compared with 31 per cent of UK-born white academic staff.
More recently, universities have begun to create pools of casual workers, and institutions will draw from these to fill ad hoc positions project by project. In April, it emerged that the University of Warwick had set up a department called TeachHigher to organise its hourly paid teaching assistants, the expectation being that this service will be franchised to other institutions in future. The move was criticised by those concerned about temporary workers’ conditions.
The UCU continues to campaign against casualisation in higher education. “It is time for the sector to get its house in order over this issue,” White says. “It is really going to bite them at some point. You can’t, on the one hand, market yourself to students as a prestigious institution in a competitive market and, on the other hand, operate Victorian employment practices.”