Lowest paid in academia ‘work four days for free every week’

UCU survey finds those in early career or insecure roles working the longest hours

June 20, 2022
Source: istock

Staff in UK higher education are working on average more than two unpaid days each week, with some in early career roles clocking up almost double their contracted hours, a University and College Union survey has found.

Those in teaching assistant positions report regularly working the equivalent of four extra, unpaid days, with nearly 65-hour weeks the norm – far higher than the standard 35-hour week contract and exceeding the 48-hour limit set by the working time directive.

Academics with casualised contracts or who are term-time only also report working way beyond the hours stipulated in their contracts, with the union’s general secretary, Jo Grady, accusing employers of “dining off the goodwill and dedication of staff”.

The UCU’s survey, last conducted in 2016, finds that 87 per cent of higher education staff say the size or intensity of their workload has increased in the past three years, with two-thirds describing the rise as “significant”.


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One in 10 says their workload is entirely unmanageable, while three in 10 say it is unmanageable most of the time. All staff groups were affected, but teaching and research staff were most likely to report the highest workloads.

Dr Grady said the findings showed that “grotesque levels of exploitation have become commonplace in education”. She warned that universities could be exposed to investigations from the Health and Safety Executive as it appeared that “vital safeguards” that protect workers were being breached.

“It is particularly damning that university staff on the lowest wages and most insecure contracts are the ones forced to work longest for free,” she added.

Concerns about the size of workloads have been one of the key grievances that have spurred union members to take 13 days of strike action this academic year.

Although some branches have managed to secure local settlements that mandate their universities to, for example, set up working groups to address the problems, there has been little progress nationally on getting vice-chancellors to take meaningful action.

Asked in the survey what is driving the increases in their workloads, staff in all job roles cite more administration and online working as among their top three contributing factors. Many say the move to online and hybrid learning during the pandemic has created much more work.

Other pressures cited include widening remits, staff reductions or restructures within a department, increases in student numbers and higher expectations from students regarding staff availability.

Dr Grady said there were now “toxic levels” of administrative work that university staff were expected to complete, which was the “prime cause” of unmanageable workloads.

“Education bosses, governments and funding bodies need to reduce the burdensome box-ticking exercises and free staff up to focus on the things that matter, like teaching, supporting students and research,” she said.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that all sectors in the UK have “faced serious workload challenges in recent years and the higher education sector has been no different”, but said addressing workload issues was part of the pay offer which was currently being considered by unions.

“All [institutions] always want to ensure staff, whatever contract they are on, feel that they are appropriately rewarded and supported to deliver to students,” Mr Jethwa said.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

If you really like getting work done for free, set up a journal. Dr A will write your content, Dr B will peer review that content, all for free. All you the journal pays for is some admin work and the costs of a websaite (very low these days). Best of all you can legally charge Dr A for using her own work then.
I think the role of professional support staff on academic and non-academic related grades is where the stress is. Academic related grades have effectively open contracts and are expected to work way beyond a standard week. They don’t get automatic term breaks and have to book and have approved, breaks and all absences from allocated and other monitored conditions of service. So no big summer breaks or pre-Covid flexible working arrangements. The institutional inequalities are grim, especially when academics continue to crow about workloads. Which staff got cut first ? Support staff. Who took the lions share of furlough and severance in 2020? Support staff across the UK. Who on average are on lower salaries ? Support staff. How many academic teaching staff, this week, have pretty much shut up shop until mid-September ? How many are on campus today and intend to be present this summer whilst being paid a monthly salary ? All whilst support staff do the heavy lifting over between now and then ?
Academic contracts and PS contracts are fundamentally different - you just cannot compare the two. That is not the point though, fair pay should apply to all contracts. Much of what constitutes success for academics isnt under their control like grants, publications etc. on top of that winning grants and publications are competitions, nationally and internationally. Teaching is probably the one thing they have some control over, but even here student evaluations are not under your control. Have some appreciation for the low locus of control that academics have. Academics are every bit right to crow about unfairness in their contracts and PS staff are right to crow about unfairness in their contracts. Within each of these categories there are huge inequalities that is extremely worrying peopel should take a closer look at that.

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