‘Grim situation’ for UK’s fixed-term staff in virus crisis

Call for universities to extend casual contracts to protect staff and stop them losing jobs because of coronavirus disruption

March 30, 2020
Source: Alamy

Casualised staff whose contracts run out while the coronavirus pandemic continues face a “grim situation” as universities start to cut spending by reducing hiring and affected staff are unable to access the government’s coronavirus support package.

The University and College Union and others have called on institutions to extend fixed-term contracts during the outbreak. According to a report from the UCU, about 70 per cent of the 49,000 researchers in the UK sector are on fixed-term contracts, as are 37,000 teaching staff.

Roger Seifert, emeritus professor of human resource management and industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton Business School, said that where the end of the contracts had been scheduled before the outbreak occurred, staff would not be eligible for the funds deployed by the government to support workers who have been laid off because of the crisis. Instead, they will be forced to seek unemployment benefits, he added.

The precarious situation of these staff was highlighted by a letter sent this week to senior budget holders at the University of Sussex about expenditure on temporary staff.

A spokesman for the university told Times Higher Education that the letter asked staff to stop recruiting new permanent staff until further notice and also to reduce non-essential expenditure.

“We are also asking all budget holders to review all temporary agency staff arrangements, if they are not business-critical roles,” the spokesman said. “We want to be clear that all fixed-term contract payments will be honoured till the end of the contract and then reviewed before the end of the term, which may result in a new contract being offered.”

With so many academics on temporary contracts, the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak has caused “mass anxiety in higher education”, said Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary. “We are getting reports of institutions letting these staff go from April onwards, and they don’t have guarantees that they can access funding from the government’s scheme,” she added.

Feyzi Ismail, a senior teaching fellow in political economy at SOAS University of London who is on a fixed-term contract ending in August, agreed. “The crisis exacerbates the insecurity for me and many others, and will take a toll on people’s mental health and their stress levels,” she said.

Dr Grady said the coronavirus upheaval had put in stark relief the “many, many flaws” in a university hiring model “that favours flexibility and short-termism, which has restricted staff employment rights and their abilities to build secure careers”.

“We want to see guarantees that all the staff who are currently employed will continue to be employed and paid,” she added.

Professor Seifert agreed, explaining that employers could extend the terms of the contract if the staff member could not complete their job within the original time frame.

Gregor Gall, affiliate research associate at the University of Glasgow and an expert in industrial relations, said it could be harder for research staff because their contracts relied on specific funders.

As universities prepare for financial difficulties brought on by the outbreak’s effect on future student numbers, staff on fixed-term contracts face a “grim situation”, Professor Gall said.

However, “with the expected support for self-employed workers to be announced soon, I would have thought this would have increased the moral and political pressure upon universities to be more compassionate towards these workers”, he said.

A Universities UK spokesman said: “We know that all university staff, both academic and non-academic, will have their own concerns and pressures in this evolving situation, as well as their commitments to the needs of students. Every possible measure will be taken to support them, be flexible and ensure they are well informed.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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