A century ago, dockers who wanted work had to assemble at the dock gates in the early morning and take their chance of a day's work. Lucky ones might get a few weeks or months. Today, would-be academics have to bombard universities with applications in the hope of a few months' work, often part time or hourly paid. Lucky ones get a year or two or (exceptionally) more. Should higher education employers be emulating Victorian dock owners?
Many higher education employers are sympathetic, but argue that they have no choice because funding is short term and competition drives down labour costs. They claim that casual staff are cheaper. That is pretty much what the Victorian dock owners said. It took years of concerted action by employers, government and unions to end the chaos on the docks. Will history repeat itself in universities?
The higher education unions think not. All have combined in an unprecedented move to launch a joint campaign against casualisation. The Association of University Teachers and Natfhe in particular will work closely to improve the raw deal suffered by most contract researchers. But short-term contracts are bad not just for staff, they are bad for students and universities. Turnover and advertising costs soar, teaching becomes fragmented, research contracts are disrupted and quality suffers as contract staff get no development or management support. The average length of Economic and Social Research Council responsive mode grants is down to 18 months and falling. The ESRC does not want that. However, institutions stand a better chance of winning a few small grants than one big one. Hence the slide to ever shorter funding contracts. Only concerted national action by all parties can reverse the trend.
There are signs that good employers are trying to reverse it. The concordat, an agreement between the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the major funders to treat contract researchers decently, is being revised. Once it is agreed and promulgated, heads of departments will know they must treat contract staff fairly or face losing research funding. At the same time the extra cash for research from the comprehensive spending review will help the research councils pay realistic overheads that will cover the concordat's small extra costs and fund longer contracts.
The government is helping to concentrate minds, partly by setting out a longer term funding framework and partly by outlawing the worst excesses of contract employment. The three-year funding framework should leave no excuse for an internally funded contract of less than three years.
The government's long-awaited white paper on employment law proposes abolishing waivers that force contract staff to sign away rights to unfair dismissal compensation. It also proposes to end the cap on unfair dismissal compensation so that awards reflect the real loss of earnings and damage done. Those two moves will persuade the worst employers that using casual staff could prove very expensive.
The white paper should also abolish the waiver that forces short-term staff to give up rights to redundancy compensation. The argument against is that "short-term workers know when they start work that their job will come to an end on an agreed date and do not therefore have the same claim for redundancy compensation when it finishes". Contract staff do not know when their job will really end. Time limits may end, but the work does not change so contracts end up being renewed, extended or rolled forward. Appointees are often promised the chance of renewal, extension or a permanent job as an inducement.
A recent AUT survey found that half of all contract staff had been on a previous contract that was extended. No fewer than 44 per cent of all academic staff are now on short-term contracts. In some institutions, the proportion is over 70 per cent. It is inconceivable that all such staff are on genuine time-limited work. Moreover, of the 48,000 academic and related contract staff, only 35,000 are funded by external funding, such as from research councils. The remainder are employed on "core" funding.
Waivers are probably unlawful anyway because they usually discriminate indirectly against women, who make up the vast majority of part-time staff and the majority of full-time contract staff. A test case on this issue is being fought by the AUT against the Open University. Unison has won a similar case at Northumbria. Many universities are ceasing to use waivers for these reasons.
Together the pressure of legal reform, improved research funding, more stable block grant funding and the updated concordat provide a golden opportunity to reverse the disastrous slide towards casual labour. The campus unions will campaign hard to make sure the opportunity is not lost.
Tom Wilson, assistant general secretary, AUT. In August he will become head of higher education at Natfhe.