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Higher Education ballots – Four fights – Experiences of a casualised teacher 

In this second of our four-part blog series, we hear from our branch President about the challenges faced by them as a casualised staff member working in Higher Education

 

When I was a PhD student, I supported myself by teaching at various FE and HE institutions. I spent countless late nights cobbling together lectures and seminars to deliver the next day, often outside my immediate area of expertise. With no official workspace I had to cart my laptop, books and notes around everywhere, often meeting students in cafes and other people’s offices. Working in a variety of locations I frequently had to navigate unfamiliar public transport, or search for semi-legal parking spaces, and I would spend fraught moments hopelessly lost in corridors, locked out of classrooms, or denied access to IT systems because of a malfunctioning ID card. It was important to me that my students trusted me, that they thought I was an established member of the teaching team, that they thought I belonged there. So, on the surface I tried to look professional, but I was permanently frantic, under-prepared and anxious. The teaching I delivered on core modules was the culmination of hours of work and I was only paid for a fraction of the time I had put in. But I was good at it. My students liked me, and I got consistently positive feedback. I did it for the love of the subject and in the vain hope that my experience would count for something. But it got me nowhere.  

After 5 years, while on maternity leave on a fixed term contract, I was made redundant. The job market in HE had become more and more competitive, and by then you needed extensive teaching experience, a monograph and a successful grant application even to get an interview. The lack of diversity that this ruthless job market encourages cannot be overstated. Once I had children, my ‘dream’ of becoming an academic was over; I was too far behind. I am now a permanent member of staff on an Education Pathway and I like my job, but I have never forgotten the feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and resentment which built up over those years on temporary contracts. My personal experience is common amongst PhD students but casualisation is now endemic. According to a UCU report carried out just before the 2019 strike over the ‘Four Fights’, 70% of the 49,000 researchers in UKHE remain on fixed-term contracts. Many more are employed on precarious contracts with short term funding, so the threat of redundancy is ever-present. 37,000 teaching staff are on fixed-term contracts, most of them hourly paid. 71,000 teachers are employed as ‘atypical academics’ but not counted in the main staff record. These are overwhelmingly hourly paid teachers, employed on the lowest contract levels, and many of them are employed as ‘casual workers’, with fewer employment rights. 50% of these ‘atypical academics’ are employed by the richest ‘Russell Group’ universities. UCU estimates that this ‘reserve army’ of academic labour is doing between 25 and 30% of the teaching in many universities (UCU report, June 2019). More recently, we have seen articles in the news highlighting the extent of casualisation at our ‘top universities’ such as Cambridge.  

During the 2019 strike, I ran a teach-out on the epidemic of casualisation in UKHE; a key issue in the ‘Four Fights’ dispute. Before this , I asked colleagues on hourly paid and fixed term contracts to share their experiences of working under these conditions. They highlighted the detrimental impact casual work has on their family lives, their ability to plan financially and their mental and physical wellbeing. They reported high levels of anxiety due to lack of certainty and said that they were unsure about their maternity, holiday and sick pay entitlements. Many colleagues had been working on short term contracts for more than 5 years and felt they had to accept unreasonable or unsuitable workloads because they were scared of being ‘passed over’ for work next time. Since becoming branch president in 2020, I have seen first-hand the levels of exploitation and have been astounded by the lack of awareness of the issues surrounding casualisation exhibited by managers and HR at the university.  

Students who attended the teach out were horrified to discover the levels of precarity at the university. Participants were asked to consider the impact of casualised work on key areas including family life, financial planning, mental and physical health and career development. They were given post-it notes for their ideas, and together we created posters highlighting the multiple effects insecure employment has on university staff. At the end of the session, we began an important discussion about concrete action the university could take to address SUCU’s concerns about casualisation. During the strike in 2019, members of SUCU executive met with Mark Smith and received assurances that steps will be taken to improve contracts and terms and working conditions for casualised staff. There seemed to be some hope that the message was getting through that casualisation in universities is bad for staff, students and the universities themselves. However, the experiences of casualised colleagues during the pandemic have shown that nothing has changed and in many ways things have got worse. The pressure, anxiety and insecurity we have all experienced over the last 18 months are exacerbated enormously when you have no guaranteed work, no sick pay and are struggling to work from home with inadequate equipment. Now that we are being pushed back on to campus, casualised colleagues are finding they are missing key information from managers, have limited access to office spaces and are facing increased pressure to accept in-person teaching when they do not feel safe because they have no choice. The final insult for our valued colleagues came when a covid bonus for staff was not extended to staff on hourly paid contracts. Despite repeated attempts from UCU to reverse that decision, management refused and, in their responses, showed once again how little they understand the extent and negative impact of casualisation at the University.  

This week, we are being called on once again to stand up for our precariously employed colleagues without whom permanent teaching staff would simply not be able to manage. We need to push back hard against exploitation in our universities. We must ensure that all workers enjoy fair and equal pay, decent working conditions and equal rights. Look out for your ballot papers, vote early, and vote YES on the ‘Four Fights’.  

If you would like to get involved in the fight against casualisation contact Amanda at ucu@soton.ac.uk 

 

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