Developing some demands ‘in and against’ the neoliberal university

In FACE we have been discussing what a national strategy for higher education anti-casualisation struggles might look like. At the moment there are a number of campaigns and organising projects springing up at universities in the UK, which have an overarching meta-demand (treat us the same as permanent staff, end casualisation) and also very important micro-demands (things like demanding office space for hourly-paid tutors, or getting paid for added extras like invigilation and marking). But what we often lack is more intermediate/transitional demands (call them what you will), which can offer links in the chain to move towards a bigger but also more transformative anti-casualisation movement.

At the assembly against casualisation held at Warwick University in June this year, we discussed how one of the reasons the fight against TeachHigher ignited so much energy was that it provided us with something to target in a very immediate, concrete way, while also symbolising and encapsulating wider processes of casualisation and neoliberalisation that affect universities nationwide. We started to throw around ideas for some other similar targets/demands  demands that link the local with the national and immediate problems with wider political processes. And demands that reject the logic of the privatised university rather than re-inscribing it. We are not saying “we want a fair share of the £9,000” or “students paying this much money deserve more value for their cash”. Instead, we want better conditions for lecturers and better education for students so that together we can break down the consumer/service-provider relationship and fight for universities that encourage critical thinking as a tool for social change.

Below is a very preliminary list of demands that we’ve come up with. We’re going to continue this conversation with as large a group of activists as possible at the next FACE conference in London on 14 November 2015. In the run-up to this we invite you to send us your demands – what issues are most pressing to you as university workers at the moment? And how would you best formulate a demand to change that situation, a demand around which all of us can struggle collectively across our institutions?

An end to 9 month and other contracts that don’t pay us outside of term time

We are people, not machines! We still need to feed ourselves, pay our rent and raise our families over the summer. We do not all have families or partners partners to financially support us whilst we pursue work in academia as a hobby. Moreover, we use vacation periods to undertake research and publications that our employers directly benefit from when they contract us to teach. We refuse to do this work for free.

A cap on the percentage of teaching done by casualised staff at every institution

University departments are increasingly structured around the assumption that a large portion of teaching will be done by hourly paid and short-term staff who can be hired at the last minute, and disposed of just as quickly according to the demands of the ‘market’. We all know the damage this does not only to the lives of these teachers and the quality of the education they are able to provide, but also to the conditions of permanent staff who have to take on a far greater proportion of the administrative and pastoral care within their departments. This is also a feature of an intensifying two-tier system of higher education, whereby Russell Group universities may advertise the possibility of being taught by ‘top professors’ as a selling point, while working-class students at post-’92s will suffer from a high turnover of especially overworked and underpaid teaching staff. Ultimately, we want an end to all casualistion in the sector, but as a first step a demand to cap the percentage of casualised teaching will both make visible the extent to which departments currently rely upon it, and insist upon more consistency in conditions across institutions.

Payment for all hours worked

Those in casual academic positions often work far in excess of their contracted hours, meaning that they end up doing a lot of work effectively for free. This is due to a range of factors: the often irregular nature of teaching work, especially the need to respond to students out of hours; outdated or inaccurate mechanisms for calculating hours; the inclusion of a huge number of tasks either in unrealistic “multipliers” or bundled together with payment worked out for contact teaching hours alone; the pressure put on junior staff to take on extra work as a part of unpaid “training”; and even pressure put on PhD students to do teaching work for their supervisors for free. These unfair and unlawful practices need to stop, and they should be replaced with a simple principle: payment for all hours worked, calculated through a fair and transparent mechanism based on actual job requirements and on an equal basis with permanent staff.

Shut down UniTemps just like we shut down TeachHigher!

In the face of criticism from both unions and the press, Warwick University rapidly backpedalled on TeachHigher and, before getting rid of it altogether, claimed that they had no intention to ‘outsource’ academic staff. Yet Warwick University-owned UniTemps, an agency for cleaning, catering and security staff across hundreds of UK universities, is already employing academic staff in some institutions including the universities of Leicester and Surrey. Targeting UniTemps could be an effective next step in opposing not just casualisation, but the introduction of internal markets within universities and profit-making franchises across the sector. It also represents the possibility of making links with other university workers, cleaners, caterers and security staff who have as much right to secure working conditions as academics.

National pay frameworks, currently negotiated between the UCU and employers, should also apply to hourly pay rates

In theory, even casualised workers should be covered by the union-negotiated national pay frameworks, but in practice the hourly wage and what it is expected to cover varies not only between universities but even between departments. University employers should be forced to make transparent how they calculate the hourly rate, and how this meets criteria established by national framework agreements. The UCU should make more of an effort to ensure that casualised workers benefit from these hard-won union gains as much as permanent academics, and that employers fully implement the framework agreements at all levels of staffing.

Photo: Tongji University Library, by Matthias Ripp

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