Casualised staff ‘dehumanised’ in UK universities

UCU report examines how academics on insecure contracts are ‘vulnerable and open to exploitation’

January 20, 2020
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The proliferation of casual contracts has left a significant proportion of the higher education workforce feeling “dehumanised” and treated as second-class citizens, according to a report.

The report, published by the University and College Union, reveals that staff on insecure contracts often feel invisible at their institutions, as they are not viewed as fully part of the university and receive little pastoral care.

Nick Megoran, reader in political geography, and Olivia Mason, teaching fellow in political geography at Newcastle University, interviewed academics at universities in the north-east of England and found that casualised staff were vulnerable to exploitation, as they were often asked to work outside their contract, which they felt obliged to do because their positions were so precarious.

One academic told the pair that when people at his institution realised he had a certain expertise, they started regularly making demands on him. “Instead of helping me become an independent academic, they say, ‘We should take advantage of him as much as we can.’ If they ask my line manager first, what can I say?” he told the researchers.

Another academic said some colleagues who thought she could teach but not do research looked down on her and so she had “crap” administrative roles dumped on her. Another described casualised staff as working in the “sweatshop of academia”.

A UCU report published in 2019 found that on average, part-time and hourly paid teachers were doing 45 per cent of their work without pay. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 67 per cent of researchers are on fixed-term contracts and 49 per cent of teaching staff are employed on fixed-term contracts.

For the most recent report, the researchers asked their 17 interviewees to identify the “humanising” and “dehumanising” moments in their careers. The humanising moments were often finally being offered permanent job contracts, while dehumanising moments related to their lack of permanence.

For some, it was smaller incidents, such as not being allowed to have a nameplate on their door, that brought home how undervalued they were, particularly when these incidents built up. This was often compounded by needing to have more than one temporary job at once, with some academics moving between different universities in different cities.

This also stopped them from being able to fully commit to research and, therefore, further their careers and eventually secure permanent employment, the report adds.

According to the report authors, the problem was that universities now saw this kind of staff as “merely resources” used to further the strategic vision of the institution. As they are often seen “as a stop-gap”, they fall through the cracks, never seeing human resources teams, the authors say.

The report calls on the government and research funders to pressure universities into being honest about the extent of casualisation and to take steps to end the practice.

Academics on permanent contracts should also show solidarity with colleagues on casual contracts and support the work to end insecure contracts.

“Higher education employers should own up to their responsibilities to ensure that staff are treated in humanity affirming ways by ending the culture of casualisation,” the report says.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said universities “need to understand this is a real problem that must be dealt with, not excused or underplayed. Some institutions have worked with us to move staff on to more secure contracts, but overall the higher education sector is too happy to exploit its army of casualised staff.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Can I add that it's not just academic staff. Support staff on contracts are treated just as badly. I didn't realise until I had to switch from a university staff contract to their agency contract. It has also cost me a great deal of money because of agency employment terms and conditions, as in annual leave. I supplemented unpaid days taken over the Christmas break from my savings, as not enough paid hours had been accrued. These contracts need to be investigated.


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