Bonfire of casual contracts ‘a huge setback’ for racial equality

Across leading higher education sectors, black and ethnic minority academics are more likely to be in the insecure roles being targeted by coronavirus-triggered saving programmes

July 9, 2020
Source: Getty
‘Power hierarchy’: job cuts ‘make a mockery of institutions’ professed commitment to equality’, according to UK union leader

Universities’ axeing of casual staff as a budget crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic hits will be a “huge setback” for racial equality in higher education around the world, experts have warned, with black and ethnic minority employees much more likely to be on insecure contracts.

In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned this week that the sector’s long-term losses from Covid-19 could reach £19 billion – the equivalent of half its overall annual income – in the worst-case scenario, and several providers have announced that they will not be renewing the contracts of large numbers of staff on fixed-term or hourly contracts in a bid to cut costs.

The IFS estimated that UK universities could slash spending on temporary teaching staff by £200 million, and on other temporary staff by £300 million, if cuts were in line with expected reductions in student recruitment.

But this will leave black, Asian and ethnic minority staff disproportionately exposed, in a picture that will be replicated in leading higher education sectors around the world.

At Goldsmiths, University of London, which plans not to extend nearly 500 fixed-term contracts, campaigners have suggested that about 75 per cent of those being laid off are from a BAME background.

At the University of Warwick, where 60 per cent of BAME academics are on fixed-term contracts and 18 per cent are on hourly paid contracts, staff are campaigning for its highest earners to take a pay cut in place of the 50 per cent proposed reduction to the sessional teaching budget.

At the Royal College of Art, where 90 per cent of staff are on casual contracts, several hundred visiting lecturer jobs are at risk. Ajay Hothi, secretary of the college’s University and College Union branch, said that “the cuts will lead to a significant decrease in the diversity of staff at RCA”.

Sector-wide, analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency data by the UCU, published in May 2020, showed that the percentage of white staff on a permanent contracts was 69 per cent, compared with 58 per cent of BAME staff.

The data also showed that 42 per cent of BAME staff were on fixed-term contracts, compared with 31 per cent of white staff, and that 18 per cent of black staff were on hourly paid contracts, compared with 13 per cent of white staff.

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said that the exposure of BAME staff to the cuts made “a mockery of institutions’ professed commitment to equality. As universities refuse to renew these types of contracts it is inevitable that they will be hit the hardest,” she said.

In an open letter published online by Times Higher Education this week, more than 300 academics, students and support staff warn that UK universities’ statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement “can at best be regarded as tokenistic and superficial”, given that institutions have “failed to seriously engage with the systemic and structural nature of racism”.

Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, said that the effect of the job cuts on racial diversity “will be a huge setback and may take many years to recover from. The collateral damage from this will be the perpetuation of white privilege in higher education,” she said.

Keston Perry, lecturer in economics at the University of the West of England, said that “academics of colour on casual contracts have expressed utter despair at what’s next in their careers given the crisis facing higher education”.

“Casualisation of black and working-class academic labour is rife and deeply historical,” he said. “Academic institutions were not created to include us, and in many ways have shown their petticoats as we are the first to be let go in this crisis.”

Institutions in the US face a similar problem, where lay-offs are particularly affecting non-tenured academics and departments related to African American studies. Carolyn Betensky, associate professor of English at the University of Rhode Island and a founding member of Tenure for the Common Good, told THE that “while the majority of the highest levels of university administration are dominated by white men, they will be unable to truly understand the effects of their decisions on minorities”.

Thousands of casual and fixed-term jobs could go at some institutions in Australia, according to the National Tertiary Education Union. Andrew Jakubowicz, professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney, said this revealed a “power hierarchy [that] starts at the top with white men and ends at the bottom with Indigenous women”.

Winston Morgan, reader in biochemistry at the University of East London, said that universities’ statements of support for Black Lives Matter rang hollow.

“When it comes to making decisions about job cuts they will make it around what they personally value, and if you are in the minority, you won’t have the allies,” he said.


Print headline: Casual staff cuts ‘huge setback’ for  racial equity

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Reader's comments (2)

And of course it is the universities who do the virtue signalling to everybody else. Perhaps they should get their own house in order first. Oh and there are plenty of people who speak English well, the university sector does not have to respond by bringing in those set up to fail.
It would be good to know something of the criteria used to distinguish which programmes to keep and which to trim back or cut outright. Are programmes on the chopping those that draw in the fewest students? Or the fewest students paying the highest fees? Are there any criteria other than contractual obligations at work here? Meanwhile, we have all speculated about the implosion of the academic bubble. Surely covid has moved that process along. But is the implosion going to first take out lecturers on casual contracts and spare the administrative staff? With administrative bloat over the last 30 years adding lots of overhead, one has to wonder when administration might share some of the burden of downsizing.