Collecting information about working conditions

One of the obstacles to organising among casualised academics is the difficulty we have in knowing how many casualised colleagues we have, who they are, or what their terms of employment are. Employers will almost never give us this information. Union branch officers can be a source of help, but are often hampered by a lack of information, for example when members regularly move between institutions without updating the Union, or work at more than one institution at once. Membership density among casualised staff is low too, unfortunately. In addition, casualised staff are likely to have heavy teaching burdens and/or be focused on producing enough research to win them an eventual permanent post. For all these reasons and more it can be hard both to identify the exact nature of casualisation at an institution and to mobilise around it.

In this position, it can be useful to organise a survey of casual staff at your institution, to find out what work they’re doing, which departments they’re doing it in, how much they get paid, whether (or to what extent!) they end up doing extra unpaid work, whether they have a contract, and so on. A survey can be useful not just as a way of gathering information, but as a starting point (or continuing point) for a campaign and a way to mobilise colleagues. Such a survey can be set up to run online through a website like surveymonkey.com, though it’s useful to promote it through offline means like posters, flyers, and face to face discussions too. There are more ideas about setting up this kind of campaign on the FACE wiki page, which is at http://fightingcasualisation.wikidot.com/

FACE members at City University who are required to teach as part of their research studentships set up the Research Students who Teach survey. It is attached here as an example of the kinds of questions that might be asked, though of course these will vary from case to case.

City FACE members will be releasing the results of this survey soon and moving on to the next stage of their campaign. Watch this space for details!

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Conference Invitation!

Fighting Against Casualisation in Education – 2nd National Conference

Cruciform Building, University College London, Gower Street, London, Saturday 21 November, 10:30 AM (for 11:00 AM start) – 6 PM

Do you work in Higher Education on a short-term/hourly paid/insecure contact? Do you regularly work more hours than you are paid for, and still struggle to get by financially? Do the exhausting workloads and relentless demands of the neoliberal University prevent you from providing your students with a real education? If so, or if you’re permanently employed but share our concerns about these issues, then you need to join us on 21st November to share ideas for organising and supporting each other, and help develop a national strategy to effectively challenge casualisation in Higher Education.

FACE (Fighting Against Casualisation in Education) was started by casualised academics at SOAS, who, following significant victories achieved by their campaign Fractionals for Fair Play, wanted to reach out to other people organising against casualisation on the ground. FACE was launched at a conference in February 2015 attended by over 150 people from many different Higher Education institutions across the UK. At the moment we are a loose network of grassroots anti-casualisation campaigns, meeting monthly in either Birmingham, London or Manchester to find ways to support each other’s local campaigns, both to improve working conditions in the here and now, and also ultimately to end casualisation and the neo-liberalisation of Higher Education. FACE threw its support behind the hourly paid tutors and union activists at the University of Warwick who succeeded in forcing management to scrap TeachHigher (an outsourcing agency for academic staff at the University of Warwick). Some of us also attended the UCU National Congress to push the union to take more notice of its members on non-permanent contracts, and recognise that casualisation is going to be everybody’s future unless we stop it now.

Our 2nd national conference will offer skills workshops, space for analysing the shape of casualisation in the United Kingdom, and strategies for organising in a precarious workplace. We are also in the process of developing demands around which casualised workers can both unite nationally, and deploy at their own institutions to effect concrete improvements in pay and conditions. These will be discussed, debated and decided at the conference. We want your input! We are new, we are open, and we want you to come along, share your views and knowledge, and join us!

Click here to register your interest or to let us know of any access, dietary or childcare requirements, which we will do our best to accommodate. PLEASE LET US KNOW OF ANY SUCH REQUIREMENTS BY SATURDAY 14th NOVEMBER. If you will have real difficulty affording travel, please also let us know, as we may have limited funds available to defray expenses.

Photo: the Cruciform Building, UCL, by Anders Sandberg

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

The debate in History over early careers

by J. Saunders 

In July I attended a conference at Birmingham University on “Rethinking Modern British Studies”. Having submitted my thesis the week before, I had not been plugged in enough to actually read the conference materials, and so had missed the working paper written by a group of doctoral students at Birmingham discussing the position of postgraduates in modern academia, along with the pressures of overwork, funding, job scarcity and precarious labour.

This paper was the starting point for discussion in the first session of the conference. The small, stuffy lecture theatre crackled with energy as young scholars expressed their anxieties, fears and anger, and as senior academics expressed their dismay about the present state of the university. This energy seemed to sustain itself over the course of the next three days, culminating in a barnstorming speech against the injustices facing early career researchers in Laura Sefton’s contribution to the closing plenary.

The conversation continued over the months to follow, with the opening session referenced in response blogs on the Modern British Studies website. The debate intensified in the last week – particularly on social media  with a History Today article by Matthew Lyons (which got a lot of people’s hackles up), a widely criticised article in Times Higher Ed, and two generally praised articles on Historylab plus, one offering a personal perspective, the other looking to historicise the true extent of casualisation.

History then, is now having a sustained debate over what casualised work of various kinds might mean for the sector. Moreover, despite a couple of contributors to the discussion getting some flak (for a divisive attitude towards either postgraduate researchers or permanent staff), there has been a consensus that expecting people to spend years uprooting themselves for temporary contracts and casual work needs to change.

It is vital that we have this debate. However, to me there’s a very clear absence in the discussion. Framing the issue around “Early Career Researchers” involves the unhelpful assumption that this is primarily about one category of academic workers being subject to precarious conditions at one particular part of their life cycle. As such, it very easily degenerates into either career advice, competing interpretations of what’s going on in academia, or utopian schemes for mitigating the worst effects of the “early career gap”. There has been comparatively little attempt to contextualise these experiences, explain the social processes that have produced them and to discuss how we might go beyond petitioning in trying to bring about change.

Understanding casualisation in higher education involves looking beyond our “careers” and thinking about economic rationalities. Academics are workers in institutions that are rapidly “rationalising” their employment practices in line with market imperatives. Your Head of Department didn’t advertise for a 9-month teaching fellow on a 0.4 contract out of callousness, nor do they expect their Graduate Teaching Assistants to do unpaid labour because they think postgraduates are non-people; they did it because that is what the pressures of the modern university encourage them to do. The same logic that sees universities outsource their security, catering and cleaning staff, relegating them to second-class citizens without a living wage or proper access to pensions, sick pay and holidays, sees universities pressuring permanent staff (both academic and admin) to take on ever increasing workloads, and to casualise much of their teaching. A benevolent HoD or senior administrator might stem the tide, but the waters will continue to rise.

Precarious conditions are not a career issue, they’re a social issue and whilst worrying about it as an “early career” problem might help me through the minefield (I’m currently unemployed), that general context of market-led pressure on higher education workers is just going to follow me wherever I go. If I get the hallowed “permanent academic job” it’ll be there in the form of bullying me for grant income or forcing me to take on enormous workloads. If I don’t, and stay in academia, I might remain in permanent academic precarity, as an hourly-paid lecturer (HPL) or even on a zero-hours contract, something post-1992 institutions in particular make ever increasing use of.

Moreover, good career advice for me will do nothing to stem the ways in which precarity reinforces privilege in higher education. We all know the grim reading that the demographics of our profession make in terms of social mobility, as well as gender and racial equality. It would be beyond complacent to pretend that both the additional extras (publication records, etc.), the subjective nature of hiring (who do you know?) and the expectation of long periods of casual or unpaid work, don’t hugely contribute to this pattern of exclusion, with students from less affluent backgrounds punished at every stage of the long road to an academic career, for a lack of time, financial resources and contacts.

Since all of these problems are social, the solution to them likewise has to be social. Sympathetic departments might alleviate a few minor gripes, but it’s ultimately not going transform a sector in which all the economic logic points towards more casualisation and stricter hierarchies. We need to accept that we and our institutions have some contradictory interests when it comes to our working conditions, especially with regard to “flexibility” and productivity. In such a situation we need a collective mechanism by which academic workers can look to challenge the unfairness and discrimination inherent in casualised conditions, and to democratise the university.

The conversation that broke out from the Modern British Studies Working Paper shows the power of discussing these issues collectively. When we come together and talk as precarious and more secure academic workers, we begin to understand the problem and to offer solutions, inching towards a consensus. This potentially shows the way forward if we could generate these conversations on a national and inter-disciplinary basis. This, in part, is what the FACE network intends to do, ambitiously pushing for a national campaign organising thousands of university staff  casualised, permanent and everything in between – with branches in every institution able to generate a democratic discussion on what we want the university as a workplace to look like. A campaign that fights to force university employers to adopt better employment practices at national level, with local groups making sure they exist on the ground. A social movement that means we can take collective direct action in support of democratically-agreed demands, rather than just begging for sympathy from institutions whose hands are often tied by the cold logic of the market.

Photo: Bound, by gfpeck