Third of casual staff struggling to pay rent, UCU poll finds

Survey details the financial and personal costs of casualisation in higher education

May 21, 2015


Source: Getty

Desperate times: the UCU survey found that 20 per cent of those on casualised contracts had difficulty paying for food

About a third of university staff on fixed-term or casualised contracts struggle to pay their rent or mortgage and household bills, a survey of just over 2,500 University and College Union members suggests.

A fifth of those in non-permanent posts in higher education had difficulty paying for food, and 16 per cent found it hard to pay off loans, according to the UCU report, Making Ends Meet: The Human Cost of Casualisation in Post-secondary Education, published on 21 May.

Some 6 per cent of the university sector respondents to the survey claimed working tax credits and 7 per cent child tax credits, it adds.

About a third of casualised staff (32 per cent) said that they had struggled to get a mortgage given the precarious nature of their employment, the report says.

“I have given up trying for a mortgage and am resigned to the fact that I will always be in rented accommodation,” said one university lecturer who responded to the UCU poll carried out between January and April.

Another lecturer reported “struggling [to gain a mortgage] because of the end date of my contract despite being at the university since 2010 on a series of full-time contracts”.

Many more university employees also said that they had never tried to get a mortgage given the short-term nature of their posts. About a third of academics and almost 70 per cent of those on research-only contracts are employed on a fixed-term basis, the report says.

“You don’t try to buy a house if you don’t know where you will be living and working in two years’ time,” said another lecturer.

It’s grim out there

The study, which covers about 1,800 employees in higher education and about 700 in further or adult education, reveals the “harsh reality of life in our universities and colleges”, said Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, who will highlight how the “exploitative use of casualised contracts breeds insecurity, anxiety [and] stress” in her keynote address to the union’s annual congress in Glasgow, which takes place from 23 to 25 May.

“Staff starting their career today are more likely to have a casual contract than a permanent one and the personal impact of this lack of security is profound and long lasting,” she says in the report.

“It means that people often don’t know how they will make ends meet from one week to the next…and the next big life decisions like buying a house or having children must be indefinitely postponed.”

Universities and ministers should stop trying to defend casualised contracts as “flexible”, Ms Hunt adds, saying “flexibility is not a two-way street” and “people who want security and a proper contract should be able to secure one”.

About 55 per cent of all respondents were on fixed-term contracts, while 20 per cent were on zero-hours contracts, the report says.

On pay, 14 per cent of the university staff surveyed had a gross monthly pay packet of less than £500, while another 16 per cent earned between £500 and £999 a month. One in 10 also claimed that their working hours were so irregular that it was impossible to say how many hours they typically worked.

Other academics revealed that they had been forced to undertake an excessive amount of teaching, which had taken a toll on their personal lives and their health. “My career is in tatters at the moment, with the huge number of hours needed to make ends meet impacting on my ability to research and publish,” said one lecturer.

The joy of flexibility

However, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association said that the number of permanent/open-ended contracts had risen in recent years, up by about 8,000 since 2009-10 to 95,515 in 2013-14.

“Higher education institutions use ‘hours to be notified’ casual contracts for genuinely unpredictable work such as cover for specialist demonstrators and teaching assistants,” a Ucea spokesman said, adding that many professional staff enjoyed flexible contracts if they were employed elsewhere at the same time.

“Higher education institutions cannot simply provide full-time or open-ended employment to everyone who wants it; like all employers, they will always have variable and temporary needs,” he added.

Ucea has been working with the five unions involved in higher education over the past year on the issue of casual staff and a joint report on best practice will be published next month.

Special conferences: union members attempt to rein in proliferation of ‘undemocratic’ gatherings

Too many costly and “undemocratic” special conferences are being called by disgruntled University and College Union activists seeking to overturn executive decisions, the union’s congress will hear.

While most of the UCU’s policies are decided by delegates at the union’s annual congress, which takes place in Glasgow this year from 23 to 25 May, there are concerns that a growing number of key decisions are being taken at special conferences to address specific issues.

Several special conferences, each of which must have the backing of 20 UCU quorate branch meetings to go ahead, have been held in the past 12 months to address pay and pensions issues. But some delegates in Glasgow will call for their use to be curtailed because they are poorly attended and driven by small factions within the union.

The University of the West of England’s UCU branch has tabled a motion seeking a review of how the meetings are called. Each one can cost £20,000 or more, it says.

“Holding these meetings with just two or three weeks’ notice means lots of people can’t go to them because they cannot rearrange teaching or meetings,” said Harriet Bradley, the branch’s secretary.

“People with caring responsibilities or childcare commitments are also excluded – it is very undemocratic,” she added.

The meetings are often dominated by delegates from universities close to the venue, whereas the May congress allows time for all branches to send their representatives, Professor Bradley said.

“If they are held in Manchester, it tends to be those from northern universities who attend; if it’s London, then representatives from the capital are there,” she said.

Many of those behind the special conferences are those unhappy with decisions made by the UCU’s national executive committee, who are elected nationally by members, Professor Bradley said.

“These meetings shouldn’t be called just because people are a bit fed up by the NEC,” she added.

Sean Wallis, president of University College London’s UCU branch, said that the 20-branch rule should be amended because branches covering fewer than 1,000 members could force a conference.

But he believed that the right to call special conferences to challenge executive decisions should remain, saying that “recall and accountability is the cornerstone of any democratic organisation”.

“Ultimately this argument is between those who think democracy should be convenient and occasional, and hopefully not get in the way of business, and those who think the union should be democratic from top to bottom, however inconvenient this may be,” he said.

Jack Grove

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