UK union fears thousands of job losses as casual contracts axed

Union says that more than 1,000 posts are under review at at King’s College London, with Liverpool also looking at major cuts

July 27, 2020
Source: iStock

The University and College Union has claimed that thousands of jobs may be at risk across UK higher education institutions, as staff on fixed-term contracts bear the brunt of coronavirus-related cuts.

Only a handful of UK universities have publicly confirmed their plans for sessional staff ahead of the new term, but large numbers of the roles are thought to be at risk from budget shortfalls, driven in large part by expectations of a dramatic decrease in international student recruitment.

According to the UCU, more than 1,000 fixed-term employees at King’s College London have been told that their contracts are under review. The union said that more than 600 posts were at risk at the University of Liverpool; about 400 at Goldsmiths, University of London, and approximately 300 at the University of Essex.

If these cuts materialise, and were replicated across the UK sector, the number of fixed-term contracts not being renewed could run into the tens of thousands – potentially up to 30,000 – the UCU claimed.

The union reached the figure by taking the percentage of staff at risk in these four institutions and applying it to the number of academics across the UK. This would suggest that 25,275 roles were at risk in England, 3,110 in Scotland, 1,020 in Wales and 530 in Northern Ireland.

However, it is not clear how representative the four institutions are of the sector as a whole, and of the potential cuts. Research-intensive members of the Russell Group, such as King’s and Liverpool, often rely more heavily on sessional teaching staff.

Cuts to fixed-term roles have triggered concerns for racial equality, since 42 per cent of black and ethnic minority academics in the UK are on a fixed-term contract, compared with 31 per cent of their white colleagues.

Female academics are also disproportionately likely to be affected.

Overall, one-third of all UK academics are on fixed-term contracts, the UCU said. This rises to 49 per cent among teaching-only academics and 67 per cent of research-only staff.

The UCU has asked its members to sign up to 10 pledges that include putting pressure on institutions to quantify the impact of the cuts on the workloads of precariously employed staff.

Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary, said that universities “rely on an army of insecure staff who have no more rights than other members of the gig economy”.

“Universities have made promises that they will be delivering high-quality teaching both online and face-to-face in the autumn. You cannot deliver that by sacking thousands of people,” Dr Grady said. “With just weeks until the start of the new academic year, universities still are not coming clean about their plans and what they will mean for the tens of thousands of staff on insecure contracts and with an uncertain future.”

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that higher education institutions were “working hard to minimise the impact on jobs in a climate of great economic and business uncertainty”.

“Ucea has made concrete proposals to address casual employment within the higher education sector and we remain committed to working with trade unions on their implementation, as well as addressing the uncertainties ahead for staff and institutions,” he said.

Mr Jethwa added that Ucea had “reluctantly proposed a pay freeze for 2020-21”.

“Although it is too soon to predict the full impact of Covid-19, we remain deeply concerned about the anticipated financial shortfall facing our sector and this will go some way in helping higher education institutions in their efforts to plan and budget for the 2020-21 academic year,” he said.

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