By Xanthe Rose
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Casual assault on higher education

This article is over 7 years, 11 months old
The creeping marketisation of higher education has had major implications for staff contracts. Xanthe Rose explains the extent of casualised work in the sector.
Issue 414

In April the UCU lecturers’ union published a report revealing that higher education institutions are using casualised contracts to a shocking degree. The union estimates that 54 percent of all academic staff and 49 percent of all academic teaching staff are on insecure contracts. That includes staff on hourly-paid, zero-hours and fixed-term contracts, as well as agency workers.

While it is notoriously difficult to calculate the exact number of casual workers in universities because institutions do not systematically collect or report these figures, the idea that casualisation is on the rise is one that chimes with people working in the sector. The situation in many universities has led some activists and commentators to argue that higher education in the UK is following in the path of the US system where 76 percent of academics are in casual posts with little job security, often on poverty wages and some even having to rely on food stamps.

In response, the UCU, which represents this group of workers, has raised the rhetoric and its activity in recent years, developing what it calls an “offensive against casualisation”. And while vice chancellors and university management deny that casualisation is so widespread, or even that it is a problem, the government has made concessions to the idea. A government scoping paper has suggested it may develop a metric that would use staff permanency as a measure of quality in its proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).


Casualisation of work in higher education is a problem for staff on casual contracts, but it’s also a problem for permanent staff, for students and for the future and nature of universities. Aside from the problem of insecurity of work, many recent campaigns against casualisation in universities have focused on the amount of work casualised staff do that goes unpaid. Many such staff are not compensated for staff meetings, compulsory training or student correspondence, and in some cases, even for class preparation and marking. And as student expectations grow — encouraged by high fees and a service-user model of education — so too do demands on staff to perform these kinds of unpaid work. And this reflects a general intensification of workloads among all university staff.

And then there is the link between casualisation and low pay. Among university staff this largely reflects a systematic lack of bargaining and negotiation for casualised workers over wages and conditions at the workplace level. As a result, there is huge disparity in hourly rates of pay and conditions of work for casualised workers between universities, but also between departments and roles within universities. It means that many casualised staff are paid at a rate that does not align with nationally-negotiated agreements. The low pay of casualised staff is worsened by trends in overall sector pay, which has declined in both real and relative terms.

While more than one third of those in casual employment in the overall workforce would prefer to be in permanent work, it is often assumed that those on casual contracts in universities are PhD students taking up teaching work alongside their degrees, or are professionals who occasionally lecture in their area of expertise. In pre-1992 universities this is one part of the story, although academics are going further into their careers before securing permanent work with many never progressing onto secure contracts.


According to the UCU, 68 percent of research-only staff are on fixed-term contracts and move from one short-term contract to the next, with the majority of fixed-term research contracts lasting between 12 and 24 months. Probably unsurprisingly, these staff spend about a quarter of their research time searching for their next contract. In post-92 universities, over one third of staff are hourly paid and the massive cutbacks currently taking place at London Metropolitan University exemplify this, where reorganisation and redundancies are resulting in permanent staff being replaced by casualised positions.

It may surprise no one that women, black and minority ethnic and disabled staff are far more likely to be on casual contracts. This creates specific issues around access to maternity, care and sick leave or reasonable adjustments to work, while also compounding problems of promotion and professional development that people in these groups already face.

There may be inaccuracies with the UCU figures on casualisation, which potentially inflate the number of people employed on these terms. This is because they count each contract as a separate person whereas, in some cases, multiple contracts can be held by the same person. But even the Labour Force Survey estimate, which puts casual work at closer to 17 percent of the sector workforce, suggests that more of the core academic work of universities is being carried out by people on insecure contracts.

As student intakes rise, students are more and more likely to be taught by casualised staff. What that means for their education is that their teachers are often not involved in course development or review and may not be integrated into the departments where they work. And while these casualised staff are highly qualified, committed and often go “above and beyond”, despite the constraints of their employment conditions, casualisation often removes much of the work that is needed to sustain someone in that role, like research. Other aspects of their work aren’t acknowledged at all. And all of this can have a flow-on effect in terms of how the workloads of permanent staff are managed.


The issue of casualisation has come to the fore recently in the context of the broader political profile around zero-hours contracts and arguments about precarious work. But the shift towards increasing reliance on casual staff in higher education has been a long-term trend. The large-scale restructuring of the sector started with Thatcher and the neoliberal turn in the 1980s. This has since seen the withdrawal of the state from directly funding the sector, replaced by the introduction, then the increasing, of student fees while activities within higher education have been increasingly tied to profit-making.

The marketisation of higher education and changes to the way universities are financed have been responsible for a greater reliance on casualised staff. University administrations have sought staffing policies that are “flexible” and responsive to fluctuating student numbers. The government’s drive to incentivise competitive funding and private investment in university research has resulted in short-term grant money that is directly reflected in the high level of fixed-term contracts among research staff. Marketisation has been pursued by Labour, coalition and Tory governments. The Blair and Brown governments played their part with their “knowledge economy” policies that tied university research to industry, tied teaching to employability and introduced student tuition fees. The Tories’ White Paper for higher education, released last month, will drive the orthodoxy of the market further into the heart of education. It seeks to open up the sector to private teaching providers, foster greater competition between providers and discipline universities through finance. The expansion of teaching and the higher student intakes that are the logic of the government’s strategy are likely to result in an increase in teaching-only contracts and work conditions that mirror those that exist in the for-profit teaching sector: ie pretty dismal.

But while these are all changes that have affected the way universities run and the kind of commercial and financial pressures they are now subject to, the extent of precarious work in the sector is also the result of decisions made by university managements that are unwilling to engage in workplace planning and have progressively reduced staff costs as a proportion of their overall budgets. It is also still the case that the bulk of full-time equivalent staff are on permanent contracts. This has a number of implications for how we might fight back against casualised work and the low pay and poor working conditions that accompany it.

The UCU and activists are right to see casualisation as a central issue that needs tackling — the fight against casualisation has been an important objective for the UCU Left for some years. The higher education sector is distinctive in its high use of casualised workers and the UCU has much to gain from focusing on it — it shows the union being more responsive and relevant to a new generation of activists who are more likely to be in casualised work for longer, as well as in terms of combating the marketisation of the sector.


In general, the UCU has argued that casualisation manifests differently in different areas and has supported an industrial approach that deals with issues of casualisation on a campus by campus basis. And important gains can been won by doing this. Fractionals (hourly-paid staff) at SOAS undertook a marking boycott to demand payment for unpaid hours. After winning their fight against the proposed TeachHigher scheme for employing casual staff, graduate teaching staff at Warwick University negotiated better rates of pay. In addition the UCU has forged an agreement with University of Glasgow to limit the use of zero-hour and casual worker contracts.

Many of the successful local campaigns against casualisation were the result of activists who effectively used a strategy of building a combative rank and file among casual workers and then worked with and against the union — putting the pressure on UCU nationally and locally to support the aims of casualised workers and, in the case of Warwick against TeachHigher, organising students and activists outside the union, or, like at SOAS, taking unofficial action. This can be highly effective in making use of the union’s support and resources when possible and building solidarity among militants, students and others that can be mobilised quickly when the union is too cautious or ineffectual.

Underlying these methods of organising has occasionally lurked the danger of assuming that casualised staff have a distinctive set of interests to permanent staff. And there are some workplace issues — like access to maternity leave, or even to photocopiers or email addresses — that may be specific to casual workers. Yet there are many which are not. To see casualised workers’ interests as divergent has led some activists to focus on discrepancies or to see permanent staff as necessarily conservative and unlikely to act. But this positioning fails to recognise the links between casualisation and the broader changes to universities that are degrading work and putting pressures on workload and pay for all staff. And it means abandoning the possibility of winning sections of the permanent workforce who still make up the largest part of the sector and are relatively well unionised. This kind of formulation has also led some activists to disengage from the national union entirely, even when it is supporting the struggles of casualised workers.


Campaigns for casualised workers have occasionally been complicated by the blurred lines of managerial responsibility between senior academics, who may, for example, be responsible for the research budgets where casualised workers’ wages come from. But these structural pressures are not distinctive to universities nor to struggles around casualisation and they can be resolved or overcome through politics and organising.

But there are limits to local campaigns in terms of addressing casualistion in institutions where union organisation is weak and also in terms of its role in broader structural changes to the sector. Where the UCU’s current HE pay claim has linked anti-casualisation to national pay bargaining, this has raised the profile of the issues of casualisation among permanent staff as well as mobilised people to action over pay in many branches across the country.

Drawing casualised workers into the pay claim has direct implications for effective industrial action, especially when it comes to certain forms of action, like the marking boycott, which may rely on casualised workers taking part. In many ways this requires casualised workers realising that, far from being part of an oversupply of graduates and expendable, they hold a powerful role at the core of what universities do. For all staff, the inclusion of casualistion helps to politicise the pay campaign, highlighting the links between declining staff budgets and the increasing competition and devaluation of academics that is part of the government’s privatisation agenda. For example, the restructuring and lack of workforce planning that leads to the increased use of casual workers is fundamentally reshaping work and expectations for all academics.

Industrially the UCU is a long way from addressing casualisation at a national level on its own. We need a combination of alliances with other unions and campaign groups to put political pressure on the government and, ultimately, we need to build the combativity of the sector as a whole. But while academics have historically been less well organised, more professionalised and more likely to seek individualist solutions to workplace problems, the restructuring of universities is slowly changing that. As universities become more marketised and academics more subject to government policy and managerial control, it can make them more combative towards management and more amenable to collective organisation. In some ways, the growth of campaigns against casualisation is a reflection of this.

There is certainly a favourable political climate within which to build pressure against casualisation. The Labour opposition front bench have been long-term vocal critics of zero-hours contracts with shadow chancellor John McDonnell launching the Fast Food Rights campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s excited, if hasty, tweeting about New Zealand’s ban on zero-hours contracts. The idea that the worst aspects of the casualistion of work can be addressed politically has been bolstered by the New Zealand ban. It raises the possibility that a combination of industrial and political pressure can start to draw concessions from the government. But that won’t happen without pressure from below and union organisation.

Just as the junior doctors linked their fight over contracts to the broader question of protecting the NHS, academics must see their fight against casualisation and for decent pay as part of an organised movement against the Tories’ white paper and for the defence of higher education.

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