The use of casualised contracts in Further and Higher education is increasing, because it is an all-too-common management response to funding cuts and marketization. If we do not manage to turn the tide of increasing casualisation, it will be used, as it is being used, to increase the rate of exploitation, and to unload all risks and uncertainties directly onto the workforce, while management avoids responsibility for workforce management and forward planning of workload.
In some institutions a majority of staff are vulnerably employed. This in itself means it is essential for the future of the union that we reach out and recruit more members from amongst them, both in HE and FE.
UCU has done some excellent work in the last year few years, but is only beginning to get to grips with the scale of the problem.
Sometime one hears arguments from management that these contracts are flexible and suit some employees. I have to say this is an extremely rare point of view from an employee. On the contrary the phrase “no obligation to offer work, no obligation to accept work” does the opposite for the employee. The zero hours employee is usually afraid to refuse work in case they never get any more. This makes them an exploitable group, who can be offered difficult and underpaid work which they cannot afford to refuse. While flexible working should be on offer, for instance to enable staff to combine paid work with other activities, this flexibility can be accommodated via fractional contracts which give employees pro-rata employment rights.
PhD students and early careers staff
When PhD students are on the receiving end of casualisation, there is the additional pressure that they need references and teaching experience, and this need can be exploited even though real training and professional development is very thin on the ground.
Many of our early careers staff face years, possibly a lifetime, of vulnerable employment. The impact on the individuals concerned was spelt our clearly by UCU members to the Scottish Affairs Parliamentary Select Committee, which is well worth listening to at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=15248 . They detail the difficulties in claiming state benefits when one’s income is continually changing, and problems with getting a lease or a mortgage. In practice, all this makes starting out on an academic carrier impossible unless one’s family or partner is willing and able to provide financial support.
In HE, researchers’ career trajectories are constantly interrupted by having to apply for work around the country, while others are on so-called open-ended contracts which still refer to continued external funding as a condition. The work done by researchers in writing and submitting bids is often unpaid and seen as something they do for free in order to keep themselves in employment.
We must recruit more research staff to the UCU and campaign to turn the promises in the 2008 Research Concordat into reality, making research a viable career, not just a series of short-term contracts.
Zero hours and other insecure contracts are sometimes justified on the grounds some staff want flexible working to enable them to fulfil family obligations. In fact such contracts make it hard to reconcile work and family life, because the employee has no real control over their hours. They also situate some groups of workers in a marginal position in the workplace.
Scale of casualisation
The scale of casualisation in education has reached the point where trade unions must put it at the centre of their campaigning and bargaining strategy, because if we do not, we will find that our bargaining power is increasingly undermined by the vulnerability of staff on these contracts. While recognising the courage of many casually employed UCU members, the fact remains that having no job security makes victimisation and loss of livelihood a significant risk that people have to think carefully about before becoming active in the union.
In response to recent Freedom of Information requests to institutions, UCU has ascertained that at least 24725 staff in HE and at least 10868 teaching staff in FE are employed on zero hours contracts.
Based on experience, I believe this is likely to be a considerable underestimate. Hourly paid staff in pre-92 universities are usually employed by their departments or faculties, and HR may not know they are there. Staff on bogus self-employment contracts will not appear in the statistics, and there are likely to be groups that are forgotten, such as correspondence tutors employed by the department of external studies in some universities.
When speaking at a branch in my NEC constituency, I was told that HR in that particular institution had responded as accurately as it could that about 70 such contracts were in use. However, they were aware of other universities in the area that hadn’t included the teaching staff on exactly the same kind of contract.
The definition of zero hours contracts is not clear cut, so UCU’s FoI request was for data on the use of contracts under which the employer has no obligation to offer work and guarantees no minimum hours of work. If a slightly broader definition were used, to include all contracts which do not give any guaranteed hours of work, then the number of such contracts would be higher.
One of the saddest aspects for me, as a lifelong trade unionist, is when casually employed staff say that the managers issuing these contracts are UCU members, and therefore think that UCU supports or acquiesces in the situation. The use of insecure contracts drives a wedge into the workforce, which employers can exploit, and make it harder to organise in the common interest.
Not only our bargaining power, but also academic freedom, and freedom of speech are undermined. Staff cannot speak freely when at any moment their careers can be ended on a whim. This makes it harder to challenge pedagogical decisions which are damaging to students or to speak up about one’s own employment rights.
Bargaining to end casualisation
Since 2006 there have been great differences in the way institutions have responded to the Fixed Term Employees’ Regulations. Some have given contracts which are permanent, but continued employment may still be linked to external funding particularly in the case of researchers. In other cases institutions have ignored the FTERs and carried on much as before. In some places there has been a significant improvement as a result of the FTERs, but in many institutions the employer has found a way of evading them, not least through increasing use of zero hours contracts.
UCU must campaign for better legislation, but that is unlikely to be a solution by itself. We need to tell the national employer bodies, UCEA and AoC, that UCU can no longer accept a refusal to negotiate on casualisation. At the very least we need a national framework agreement to provide a basis for further negotiations at local level. Zero hours contracts are not acceptable, and the staff currently employed on them must be transferred to fractional contracts, or, if hours cannot be completely fixed, to contracts that guarantee reasonable minimum hours.