Casual contracts in higher education harm workers’ health and students’ education – according to top university bosses.
A leaked report from a virtual meeting of Russell Group universities admitted that workers, politicians and others are “increasingly expressing concerns” about casualisation.
The meeting took place on 25 February this year, after UCU union members in 74 universities had begun a wave of 14 days of strikes.
Some 27 percent of Russell Group university staff were on fixed-term contracts in 2017-18 – a rise of 31 percent since 2012-13.
The report accepted that insecure work may lead to “declining staff mental health” and “disproportionately affect those from less advantaged backgrounds”. It said casualisation and heavy staff workloads “can negatively affect student experience and outcomes”.
But the main concern was with preserving institutions’ reputations. “UCU has begun to conflate fixed-term contracts with casualisation,” the report complained. It said Russell Group universities must “show leadership” to “avoid further reputational damage”.
A draft statement from the group said “flexibility” can “create real opportunities for staff”. And the report spoke of the need to “respect the autonomy” of individual institutions. Workers need to keep the pressure on to win real changes.
Anger at increasing casual contracts is one of the major drivers of the current wave of strikes. Sam, a striker at London College of Communication (LCC), said he had worked in higher education for around ten years before getting a permanent contract.
“Higher education has sometimes used fixed term contracts in a good way,” he told Socialist Worker.
“But over the years I’ve seen an increasing dependence on it. The sector is now relying on casual contracts and staff aren’t choosing them.”
Mia, another LCC striker, said insecure contracts mean “staff are being devalued”. “We’ve got to get the message out about the frequency of them,” she added.
Paul, on strike at Leeds university, said the gender pay gap was another factor driving workers to fight. “The university is hypocritical,” he told Socialist Worker. “Staff do diversity training, but the university has policies that discriminate against women.
“People on strike are determined. We used to have one-day strikes that didn’t get anywhere. Now we have bigger strikes because the problems are bigger.”
Sam said rising workloads are another huge issue.
“I have a third year dissertation class that used to have six students, but now there are nine,” he said. “It has a huge impact on what you can do and what you can deliver.
“I’m on a 0.6 percent contract. But at certain times of year this is a seven day a week job.”
Miranda, a senior academic at LCC, is angry at how attacks on staff are affecting students. “I work in staff development but staff are so stretched they don’t have time to take part in it,” she told Socialist Worker.
“That is bad for students. When you start to see students suffering because you can’t give them what they need, it’s very frustrating.”
Workers are taking part in a four-day strike this week, and are due to start a five-day strike on Monday of next week. The strength of the action has pushed the bosses’ organisation UCEA to ask for more talks with the union.
Mark Abel is a UCU negotiator and is on strike at Brighton university. “We’ve had good numbers on the picket lines,” he told Socialist Worker.
“I think the bosses wanted to wait a bit to see how strong the strikes looked. They will have looked to see can we hold it together. And we have held it together.”
The report accepted that insecure work may lead to “declining staff mental health”
Workers want more concrete promises from university bosses. They want to know what action they will take over casual contracts, rising workloads, and the gender and race pay gaps. They also want a real-terms pay rise, and to defend their USS pension scheme.
Sean Wallis, president of the UCU at University College London, said the strikes are “becoming more political”.
“People are making connections between the issues we are fighting over and the way our university is run,” he told Socialist Worker. “And the fight is cementing relationships between students and staff.”
And strikers feel their action is making a difference. “Until we went on strike, management just refused to negotiate,” said Paul.
David, another Leeds striker, added, “We’ve come a long way since our pension strikes in 2018. Now we need more commitments on all of the issues.”
Mark said, “We’re looking for something as binding and watertight as possible. We want a framework agreement with national standards of where the sector should be going.
“Previously a big sticking point was that UCEA said it couldn’t discuss things like casualisation. Now it is talking about these things. One concrete demand we have is for a ban on zero-hours contracts, which already exists in some places. And we want a pay award that stops the long-term erosion of the value of pay in higher education.
“What we don’t want to end up with is something that universities see as optional or that they can opt out of.”