The SCUDD perspective

by H. P. Sauce

In November last year I wrote to the SCUDD list (an e-mail list for Drama and Performance academics) in order to solicit responses to a Guardian article about hourly paid and insecure academic employment.

Drawing attention to the statistic quoted in the article that ‘more than half of [teaching / research staff] – 53% – manage on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract’, and sharing some of my own experiences, I was interested in hearing what those on the list had to say, offering to collate any messages sent to me off-list in order to grant anonymity to those who wanted it.

A selection of quotes from this contact is presented below.

It is worth emphasising that a common thread of experience, that perhaps acts to enable this kind of employment, is that many of the people on these contracts come from a background of freelancing, where precarity is normalised, even if the pay is often significantly higher as a freelancer.

In my professional freelance work I would be very hesitant to accept such a low rate, and I have led workshops at a number of H.E. institutions all of which were paid at a higher hourly or service-based rate.

For freelancers, casual work in a university appeals because the monthly pay packet offers some increase in security, even though the pay is significantly less than what they’re used to, is only temporarily secure, and there is no official support for maternity / sick leave or other perks (my own experience has seen me lose a year’s work when I contacted the course director at a new place of employment to say that I was unwell and would be unable to come into work that week. By the time I had received the e-mail saying I was no longer required, I had been replaced).

Usually this work has to be supplemented by continuing to freelance, with all the accompanying logistical and emotional issues that accompany simultaneous management of multiple income streams. At least anecdotally, this would appear to be the norm for many academics on temporary contracts, at least within the arts, although further research is needed to see the proportion of academic staff that live in this way.

It’s also not ubiquitous, some casual workers come from a background of having a permanent position but felt that more flexible working arrangements might suit their situation better. With hindsight, this hope proved unfounded:

I left my permanent position after 4 years because I was expected to do my research during my holidays although in my contract research appeared to be an integral part of my position.

In those 4 years I felt not only exploited: I often felt like a commodity. And I feel it now even more as HP Lecturer. I hoped the flexibility as Visiting Tutor would make it possible to find a balance between professional career and teaching: but I was wrong.  I feel that lecturers (HP lecturers like me-in particular) can be used, squeezed to their maximum capacity and replaced. Younger and less experienced tutors will work longer hours for lower fees and that’s what makes Universities’ HR department happy…

… last year I ran a Commedia dell’Arte masterclass. This year the same university called me back but this time they would have paid me as HP tutor- not as one-off masterclass: that is less than half of the year before.

Someone else also wrote of how their freelance experience contrasted with their university work:

Last semester, with a few weeks advance notice, I co-convened, lectured and taught an entire undergraduate module on an hourly Graduate Teaching Assistant rate (about £16 per hour). I offered to do the work before I knew that the pay was so low. Silly me. There was no room for negotiation.

I have been a freelancer for over a decade, yet this was the first time I ever felt exploited. I feel so stupid looking back on this. I loved the job, but I hated the way it made me feel – undervalued, exhausted, and broke. I gave that job my very best.

Another complaint raised was around the lack of career progression. From my own experience which, thanks to a very supportive course convenor, is probably better than most, there’s still no default support for research now that I have finished my PhD (I’m thinking quite low grade things like library or JSTOR access, ethics review, training around funding – to be paid to put research projects together is a far-distant fantasy…). I also have no formal opportunity to contribute to course development or take on additional (paid) responsibilities.

Another respondent writes on the gap that appears to be opening up between PhD students and those with a secure academic position:

… from my point of view I haven’t even got to the interview stage yet, and have only seen Birkbeck advertise for hourly paid lectureships in London and the South East.  I am frankly appalled at the level of experience required to be even considered for a teaching role now; there is no distinction between full time, part time, and hourly paid roles in the job descriptions. I completed my PhD a year ago. I have teaching experience, I am published, I have organised research events, and I have secured small amounts of funding for my self-led research projects. None of this makes a dent.

They continue:

The REF is undoubtedly impacting what qualifies as essential criteria i.e. a strong record of research. It seems to me universities have given up on nurturing early career academics and are expecting us to come fully packaged. I believe the first step in alleviating this malaise is to stop counting ourselves as lucky in securing teaching work by recognizing the value we bring to universities and to students. We aren’t lucky; we are skilled practitioners who have worked damn hard in one of the harshest economic and political climates this country has seen for generations.

A number of permanent staff did express their disgust on the list, whilst Stephen Lacey, Chair of SCUDD, also responded. Whilst emphasising that campaigning for good employment practices is first and foremost a role for the unions, he did encourage SCUDD members to get in touch to join an Academic Career Development Committee that SCUDD is setting up with TAPRA and to share any other ideas that might be useful.

It wasn’t much, but it did feel that the issue of casualization, or more specifically the lack of support for post-docs is now, at least, in some small way, on the radar for SCUDD. It will be interesting to see how this develops (if it develops at all).

When fractional work is obtained, something that many of us on casual contracts see as something of a goal, things don’t necessarily improve. Despite a claimed desire for radical politics and social justice, theatre and performance departments are often very conservative in their organisation and enforce a rigid hierarchy.

I have been teaching for nearly 15 years on this basis [on a fractional contract], and there is never any increase in work from year to year (in fact hours get cut incrementally each year). When approached for more work, convenors – all of whom I have worked with extensively over that time – say they will ‘think of you’ if someone drops out of their team. But this never happens because when someone does, it turns out they will have appointed someone they were at college with, or have worked with. I have great student evaluations and very good results, so it’s not that.

In fact, no-one, not even my ex-supervisor, has read – or is even interested in reading – my research… and this means that when it comes to applying for things like Leverhulme there is no-one to write me a reference who is familiar with my research – which is a pre-requisite for their references. I go to conferences at my own expense and make wonderful contacts but our fields are so narrow that there are apparently 80 applications for every job I go for.

I was in the office recently when a colleague, referring to someone new, referred to her as being a ‘proper’ member of staff. There is a culture of status involved here as well as everything else, and this is, for me, the final straw that really makes me feel hopeless. After 15 years, and I am still not considered a ‘proper’ member of staff.

One very valuable response came from the Queen Mary Anti-Casualisation group. They introduced me – and the rest of SCUDD– to FACE, and gave many useful pointers on what action might be taken.

A very useful guide can be found here on the FACE Wiki, but others, not necessarily affiliated to FACE, had some tips:

So, what do I need in order to be part of positive change at my institution? The suggestion of Open Forums is good, but I can’t share my views with colleagues if I can’t afford to be a student rep, nor can I afford to attend events where my views can be heard.

With regard to this particular issue, I was passed some interesting research into the various benefits that course reps receive at a number of institutions. It’s too much to list here, but should anyone be interested, please contact me at hp-sauce@gmx.com and I’ll happily pass it on.

Inevitably, this was a tiny selection of the voices that have a stake in this issue, and whilst the stories individually told are depressingly bleak, I do take comfort in the fact that there are many brilliant minds and a lot of energised souls looking to address this.

This is a battle that can be won, probably not quickly, and definitely not individually, but I do take hope from knowing how many smart people are working together on this.

To finish, one last quote:

Teaching should give us joy, should inspire us all the time not in rare occasions and it should reflect our experience, knowledge and the quality of our work … first of all our pay should be fair!


* It is worth noting that not all the responses I received requested anonymity. However, to avoid drawing particular attention to those who were happy to share their identity, I have decided not to share the names of the five respondents quoted here.

Academic staff must stand in solidarity with each other to make the NSS boycott effective

The UCU and the National Union of Students both support the student boycott of this year’s National Student Survey (NSS). This boycott has been called in opposition to proposals in the Higher Education Bill to use data from the NSS to inform scores in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which in turn will be used to raise tuition fees.

FACE wholeheartedly supports this student-led boycott. It is the only effective strategy left to block the flagship policy of the Higher Education Bill and the serious threat it poses to our working conditions. There is, however, a great deal at stake here.

To win, the boycott cannot be limited to a few departments or institutions, but must be as solid and as wide as possible.

Not only that, but low participation rates for the NSS have in the past been used by university management to discipline departments and justify cuts to their internal budgets. If the boycott is not implemented consistently and effectively across departments and all higher education institutions, then there is a risk that small departments with exceptionally radical student bodies will be the only ones affected and management will use these low participation rates to punish them. We have a collective responsibility to each other to ensure that all members in our respective departments are fully aware of the boycott and know how best to support it.

What you can do:

  • Display these posters and flyers in your department: https://www.ucu.org.uk/boycott-the-nss.
  • Inform all your final year students about the boycott, and let them know that is supported by both the lecturers’ and the students’ union. (The official advice from the UCU is that although members are not allowed to impede students who wish to participate in the NSS, they can let students know about the UCU’s national and local position in support of the boycott. Moreover, if you are told by your Head of Department or line manager to refrain from informing students about the boycott, you should ask for the person concerned to put the instruction in writing and then immediately seek the advice of your UCU branch, obeying the instruction until further notice is given.)
  • Invite your local student union to speak about the boycott for five minutes at the beginning of all final year lectures and meetings.
  • Call a meeting of all UCU members in your department to ensure that everybody is informed about the NSS boycott and feels supported to follow union policy.
  • Ask your UCU branch president to write all Heads of Departments and your Vice Chancellor informing them of UCU support for the NSS boycott and requesting that they respect members’ right to follow official union policy. They should demand reassurance that no disciplinary action will be taken against members for doing so.. They should also demand that no undue pressure is placed on students to prevent them from participating in the boycott.

Casualised academic workers: join the national demo on 19 Nov!

Facebook event – please share and invite your colleagues!

On 19 November, students, education workers and supporters from around the country will march in London to defend education – to demand an end to college cuts, grants not debt, and to defeat the higher education reforms. (Main event: National DEMO: United for Education). As casualised workers, we are already hyper-exploited and underpaid, with women, BME, migrant and disabled workers hit particularly hard, and the government’s assault on education will only make things worse. So we will be marching too – to demand higher wages, job security, and a democratic, public education system properly resourced to treat and pay its workers decently.

It is absolutely essential that we turn back the tide of attacks on education. The brutal cuts to colleges will see an already-squeezed workforce face further job cuts, and intensified exploitation for those remaining. The higher education reforms will give a leg up to private businesses seeking to take the places of public institutions, and artificially impose an even more competitive market between universities – this will further undermine collective national bargaining and intensify the race to the bottom in the use of low-wage, short-term, insecure and zero-hours employment.

We must stop this – and through our collective strength we can. Join us on 19 November.

Facebook event – please share and invite your colleagues!

FACE welcomes decision by NUS this week to go for an all-out boycott of the National Student Survey

All university workers need to get behind the student boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) if we are serious about defending public higher education.

Why? Because the results of the NSS lie at the heart of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the flagship policy of the Tory government’s Higher Education Bill and its wide ranging agenda of privatisation and marketization.

The TEF claims to measure teaching excellence using big data such as scores in the NSS and graduate employment and earnings. Not only will this be a wholly blunt tool with which to measure real teaching quality, it will also place further bureaucratic burdens upon over-stretched university staff, distracting us from our job as teachers. Its real purpose is to enable an increase in student fees – institutions which score highly in the TEF will be able to raise tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-19, followed by even higher level fees in 2019-20.

The goal of the NSS boycott is to wreck the data upon which the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will be based. Even before the TEF is introduced, the government and HE managers already rely on the NSS as a crucial tool for the management of higher education and the disciplining of university workers. So an all-out student boycott of the NSS is the most effective strategy we now have to gain the leverage we need to stop the TEF and the higher education reforms as a whole. The joint NUS-UCU demonstration against the Bill on 19th November is most welcome, but given that the bill has already passed its second reading and is supported by the Tory majority in the Commons, we need a plan for action to halt and reverse the reforms if we cannot prevent their parliamentary passage. We can make it impossible to implement, and force the government to backtrack, through the collective action of staff and students in our places of work and learning.

The UCU national congress passed policy to support the boycott and individual UCU branches have also passed motions welcoming the NUS action. In doing so, university workers have taken a bold step, given how much pressure is currently placed upon us to ensure high student participation rates in the NSS due to its importance in university league tables. Often, poor results or low student turn-out for the NSS at a departmental level have led to staff having budgets cut or face bullying from university management. Only a mass nationwide boycott can ensure that low NSS participation rates in 2017 won’t be used against university staff.

We therefore need our union to put its words into action and offer practical and effective support for its members during this boycott.

This should include:

  1. Making clear to all members that we have the right to say no to advertising the NSS. We also have the right to speak out against university money being spent on bribing students to participate in the survey.
  2. Demanding that NSS results in 2017 not be used as the basis for determining university internal budgets and allocating resources between departments.
  3. Demanding that no disciplinary action be taken against apartments with low participation rates in the NSS, on the basis that the results for 2017 are illegitimate.

More info: Check out NUS’s announcement and the call to action from the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts

NUS: Sabotage the 2017 National Student Survey to stop the higher education reforms

Fighting Against Casualisation in Education supports the motion (Amendment 201B) going to a vote at the National Union of Students Conference this month, proposing that NUS should plan a mass sabotage or boycott of next year’s National Student Survey (NSS) and the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Survey (DLHE), until the government drops its damaging higher education reforms. These reforms pose a serious threat to education, to students and to workers, and we welcome ideas and discussion about ways to gain the material leverage necessary to force the government to back down.

FACE has written previously about our opposition to the marketising, privatising reforms, and how they will lead to increased casualisation and the exploitation of workers. The NSS and DLHE are key features of this marketising agenda. They are both proposed as key measures within the so-called “Teaching Excellence Framework”, which has been designed to create a marketplace in which teaching staff and institutions must compete according to a series of metrics. This is a mechanism for the government to impose its neo-liberal agenda on education. In addition, the NSS – which casts students as consumers against staff as commercial service providers – is already used to discipline and bully us as a workforce, to justify managerial reorganisations in which jobs and areas of study are lost, and as one of the tools for managing and marketising higher education as a whole. Recent investigation even revealed a racist bias in NSS results against black and ethnic minority teachers. And other studies have shown that this type of satisfaction rating can reflect sexist biases against women teachers too.

Given all this and the severity of the threat posed by the higher education reforms, as a campaign representing workers in higher education, we support the proposed idea to organise mass disruption of these surveys in order to gain leverage over the government, helping to pressure them to withdraw the reforms.

As a more general point, FACE believes that students should have a genuinely democratic say over the delivery of teaching. The NSS does not do this. Instead it treats students as passive consumers, and the data collected from them is used by government and higher education managers for their own ends. Too often that means disciplining staff, individual departments, and entire institutions, through austerity measures, forced competition, and the imposition of underfunded targets. Looking forward, we want universities where students and staff work together in participatory and collegial democratic fora to govern our institutions, including the design and provision of teaching. We hope that student-worker cooperation on this action, and the defeat of the higher education reforms, can be the first steps towards a more democratic future for our universities.

For more information, the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts has written a more detailed explanation of the motion and how you can help the campaign to pass it and created a Facebook event to spread the word and keep up with the campaign. The motion itself can found in this document, listed under 201b.

Developing demands around doctoral work

In the lead-up to our conference this Saturday, we’ve been discussing demands that could help give our movement form and direction. We previously published a number of these for discussion and at the conference we will be debating, refining and deciding them. To add this this list, we’re also thinking about the research work that doctoral students carry out. Below is a proposal of a demand we might organise around – it will be the basis for discussion in the “Doctoral Researchers – Students or Workers?” session on Saturday, so come along with your ideas! And do take a look at the other preliminary demands here.

Doctoral students should be recognised as workers, with workers’ rights and pay

Not just the teaching, but the research that doctoral students carry out is work too. Our departments and our institutions benefit from our research work, but we are not treated as employees. We have no workplace rights, no clear terms and conditions, and many of us are expected to self-fund – as if a PhD was a 3 year unpaid internship. PhDs should not only be treated as students but also recognised officially as employees. That means decent pay, hours and employment contracts, and trade union rights.

Photo: Tongji University Library, by Matthias Ripp