by Rowan Gavin
One of the biggest and most poorly kept secrets in higher education – that many teaching staff are employed under terms more often associated with a Sports Direct factory – has been breaking into mainstream media attention lately. To get an inside perspective on this casualisation of teaching work, and an idea of the scale and nature of the problem both locally and nationally, I spoke to three members of teaching staff who have worked on casual contracts in English universities in recent years. Two were employed at UEA, and one at Warwick University, where they are a part of the campaign group Warwick Anti-Casualisation (WAC).
The three people I spoke to had all worked on fixed-term teaching contracts for a number of years, both during their own postgraduate study and after completing it. Teaching, marking and preparation are generally paid at a fixed rate, but these rates are based on assumptions about how much work time these tasks require. One UEA contact that they struggled to keep to the 20 minutes marking per script and the few hours prep per lecture that they were being paid for. And a worrying proportion of the work required of postgrad tutors is not paid at all. I heard that many tasks, including providing office hours, marking formative work, doing admin, and supporting students outside of teaching, often go unpaid. The fixed-term nature of contracts means it is rare for these staff to receive any pay between modules.
The staff I spoke to faced a range of other issues beyond the liberties taken with their pay. In some cases staff begin their work without any formal induction, and are not given important information about admin arrangements, internal procedures, and even what they are actually expected to do in their roles. Simple provisions like office space are often absent. At Warwick, the university attempted to reorganise casual teaching through a program called ‘Teach Higher’, which would have allowed for the summary dismissal of casual staff without notice. Thankfully this change was prevented through a staff campaign, but it is an indicative example of the draconian measure universities are increasingly turning to.
a worrying proportion of the work required of postgrad tutors is not paid at all
A major theme that arose was the inconsistency of arrangements, both within and between institutions. At Warwick there is “no uniformity in pay or conditions between departments”. Although WAC have had some success in obtaining concessions on the improvement of conditions, these often take place only at the departmental level, creating a disparity across the institution. At UEA one contact reported being paid a fee to convene a module, but at Warwick staff have been asked to take on this kind of major responsibility without any extra remuneration. Avoiding fixed standards of employment is one of the major advantages of using casual contracts from the employers’ perspective, and one of the things that makes them so dangerous for staff.
The fixed, short-term nature of the contracts under which many tutors are employed has a number of detrimental consequences. First and most prominently, they put staff in a financially insecure position. Many tutors need to take on other part-time work to support themselves, especially during university holidays, and this “can make you overloaded during term time”.
Less obvious is the way that these contracts create a cycle of conflicting interest for tutors, eating up their time. One of the UEA staff said that their experience of employment there “wasn’t entirely negative by any means”. After all, “Everyone wants to teach. You need the experience and you need the money.” However, the nature of the teaching opportunities on offer often result in an overcommitment of time, both out of a desire to provide students with suitably good teaching and because negative feedback from students could result in less work next semester.
In one tutor’s words this was “the real problem: no one ever really knew how much teaching they’d get from each semester to the next”. This “causes a lot of stress for everyone”, and leads to competition between postgraduates for the available teaching work. Once a tutor gets the work, they have to commit a lot of time to ensure they’d still be employed come the following semester, eating into time that could be spent on their own research. One of the staff summed up this cycle of time pressures:
“The problem postgraduates face is this: to support themselves financially as academics, they often have to put so much effort into teaching that they don’t have time to do the kind of work needed to get stable academic jobs. Your own work gets put off, so it takes longer to finish the degree, so you remain a student for longer, and all the while you’re becoming more and more dependent on the teaching.”
the real problem: no one ever really knew how much teaching they’d get from each semester to the next
Impact on Students
As a student, when the people employed to teach you are stretched and messed around, you feel the effects. Casually employed tutors can rarely afford to turn down offers of teaching work, and as a result may find themselves teaching a topic they have little interest or experience in. This not only requires them to dedicate even more (likely unpaid) time to learning the new material, but limits their ability to teach the topic well. One tutor I spoke to felt that “My input [on modules they had little experience with] would never meet the standards I would hope for from my teaching”.
This sets up students and tutors in conflict with each other. Students are understandably frustrated when their teachers seem to know little more about a topic than they do, and their first reaction is often to blame their point of contact with the system that is failing them – the tutors themselves. The tutors meanwhile often know that they aren’t doing right by the students, but the instability of their situation leaves them little choice in the matter. The atmosphere of frustration and guilt that these problems can create is hardly conducive to enjoyable, productive education.
The Scale of the Problem
Joint work by UCU and The Guardian, published in November, estimated that 53% of all academic staff in Britain are employed on “some form of insecure, non-permanent contract”. At Russell Group universities like Warwick, the figure is often closer to 70%. My contact at Warwick said that these estimates reflect the experience of WAC, although the university “has made it very hard for us in the past to get exact figures”. This tutor told me that in their department, at times “approximately 90% of the first year teaching […] was done by casualised staff”.
The atmosphere of frustration and guilt that these problems can create is hardly conducive to enjoyable, productive education
At UEA, the casually employed tutors in one department worked out that they accounted for “at least half of all undergraduate teaching, and a reasonable proportion of postgraduate teaching” in the department. Figures on the proportion of casual teaching across all the departments at UEA are not readily available. Given that permanent staff are commonly (and understandably) “very happy to give away teaching [to casual staff] so that they could spend more time on research”, it seems likely that similar trends would hold sway across the institution.
Unsurprisingly, casually employed academics are not just lying down while universities run roughshod over their employment rights. WAC have spent years collecting information on the nature and scale of casual labour at Warwick, and working to raise awareness of the issue. Some departments have been able to win concessions, including “paid training, a clear explanation of what duties we were and were not expected to perform and pay for all hours worked”. However, these successes have yet to be replicated across the institution: “Outside of the humanities, a lot of these initial issues are still really big problems”.
Trade unions are also playing a role. As mentioned above, UCU (the University and College Union) have produced pioneering research on casualisation, and at Warwick the first concessions were won by “a growing campaign based around the departmental UCU rep”. However, at other universities including UEA, unions face obstacles familiar across many industries: lack of resources and difficulty engaging with workers. When one of my contacts approached their union reps seeking assistance in resolving a dispute, they found that they “didn’t seem to have any resources/time to spare for us”. The other member of UEA staff I spoke to said that “None of us ever even considered approaching the union”.
When one of my contacts approached their union reps seeking assistance in resolving a dispute, they found that they “didn’t seem to have any resources/time to spare for us”.
There is much still to do to ensure that WAC’s aim of ensuring “that all people employed by the university are employed on actual contracts and paid fairly” can be achieved across the country. Universities must acknowledge that part-time tutors “are actually part of the workforce and not a reserve army of labour that helps increase profit and VCs’ pay packets”. This may seem like a “reasonable, logical and fairly pedestrian” demand, but as the WAC member I spoke to pointed out, that “is a testament to how unreasonable and illogical casualisation at university has become”.
The last thing I asked my Warwick contact was what readers of the Norwich Radical could do to get involved in the fight against the casualisation of academic labour. They directed me to WAC’s petition ‘Six demands for fair teaching conditions at Warwick’ please sign, and maybe consider starting a similar petition for your own institution. Our conversation ended with a powerful call to action:
“Readers should share and like anything they see or find useful. Any show of solidarity means an awful lot to all of us. At the point where students, potential students and parents are aware of issues, we are able to access real leverage.
But more than that I would encourage all readers to try and apply some of what we’ve learned to their own universities. What we really face is a national issue which needs a national solution. The more universities where staff and students take a stand against casualisation the harder it gets for institutions to try and brush the issue under the carpet. If you are unhappy with your pay and conditions, get organised!”
If you have been employed on a casual contract at a university and would like to write about your experience for The Norwich Radical, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured Image via INTO