Yes to the pay campaign, but more importantly, yes to a proper fight against casualisation!

If you are a member of the University and College Union (UCU) and work in Higher Education, over the past couple of weeks you will almost certainly have been bombarded with emails, adverts and messages exhorting you to vote YES to strike action over this year’s pay offer. You will also have received a ballot through the post giving you the opportunity to vote for a strike or to vote for action short of a strike.

There are, as there usually is during our national pay negotiations, plenty of reasons to vote for a strike. As the UCU points out there’s the sustained decline in our real wages (14.5% since 2010), the ongoing pay gap between men and women (£6,103 a year), the number of teachers and researchers in Higher Education on fixed term and casual contracts, including the 21,000 teaching staff on zero-hour contracts. For those reasons, we at FACE give a resounding YES to national strike action this Autumn and we’re happy that the union has raised casualisation in the sector as one of their demands.

However… We are, like many people in Higher Education, wary about what exactly a YES vote will mean. We’re wary that what it will mean is HE workers being marched to the top of the hill for a single 2-day strike, staying there for a brief, half-hearted marking ban, before being marched back down again when the employers offer us another fraction of a percent. We’re wary that little effort will be made to energise branches and improve union organisation in Higher Education. We’re wary that activists will be wound up to fight, but that the official union will be looking to de-escalate as quickly as possible. We’re wary of being told that the dispute is about a long list of things but that, in the end, a pay increase will be all that really matters.

And we’re wary because to a great extent that is exactly what happened in 2013-14. Back then the joint pay demand put forward by the UCU, UNISON and Unite contained a whole bunch of lovely goodies. There was an end to low pay, action on the gender pay gap, a cap on Vice-Chancellor pay, an increase in London Weighting, an end to zero-hour contracts, fractional salaries with time for admin and prep for all hourly-paid staff, new agreements on disability leave, and agreements on limiting workloads. But what was the actual substance of the fight our unions waged? How often did the union talk about anything other than the headline percentage figure? How much progress has been made on those issues, given that they’ve been raised in almost the exact same format two years later?

Our experiences of the UCU’s priorities in previous fights have made us wary of our union’s priorities. We worry that these issues will be treated as marginal, when to the people our unions are seeking to represent, they’re really not. For casualised workers in Higher Education, pieceing together fixed-term, hourly or zero-hour contracts, being paid for a fraction of the time they actually spend working, an extra 0.5% doesn’t mean very much. 0.5% on a casual contract is 0.5% of whatever we can cobble together and 0.5% of whatever arbitrary number of hours our employer decides we are working. We worry that any progress the UCU makes on the gender pay gap will inevitably be partial, and slanted towards senior permanent faculty, if the casualisation which disproportionately affects women and people of colour is once again sidelined.

Moreover, we worry that with the rise of temp agencies like Unitemps and the now dead (and unmourned) TeachHigher, as well as the point blank refusal of universities to consider taking low-paid catering, security and cleaning staff, back in house, there will still be many thousands working in HE for whom national action on pay will bring not even the meagre benefit in-house casualised staff will get.

We worry, but we have hope. We have hope that this time YES will mean something more. Not just YES to a fight over a percentage point on our hourly rate, but YES to a real fight over what employment in Higher Education really means. YES to a real end to zero-hour contracts across the sector. YES to an end to gender pay discrimination. YES to realistic job descriptions that pay for every hour worked. YES to an end to contracting out exploitation to unscrupulous employment agencies. YES to really, genuinely dismantling discrimination in Higher Education. YES to mobilising casualised staff and permanent staff to fight against all forms of exploitation in Higher Education.

YES to all these, and YES to making them central not marginal to our fight in 2016.

Photo: ‘UCU’, by Simarchy.

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‘Teaching studentships’? No thanks!

As part of its ‘Distinctively Derby’ branding push, the University of Derby recently advertised ‘up to 11 full-time PhD studentships to be held as Graduate Teaching Assistantships’. Billed as ‘great opportunit[ies] for suitably qualified and ambitious students’, these positions involve ‘work[ing] with our academics to address a predefined research topic’ while undertaking a ‘limited amount of teaching’—the precise extent is never actually specified, either in the advert or on the university web page to which applicants are directed. In return, students will receive a £14,100 p.a. stipend for three years.

There is nothing unique about these studentships, applications for which close tomorrow. In recent years, universities have increasingly tried to cut staff costs by offering awards which mimic those offered through Research Councils UK (current stipend rate £14,057 p.a.) while piling on unremunerated teaching. Similar positions have been used by the universities of York, Kent, Leicester, UCL and a number others. But Derby’s advert, with its euphemistic ‘to be held as’, gives the lie once and for all to the idea that these sorts of teaching studentships are a reasonable or fair form of academic labour.

The standard RCUK studentship rate, already pretty meagre, is designed to support students to work full-time on their PhD for, in most cases, a period of three years. While a small amount of teaching is allowed, the RCUK Training Grant guide makes clear that it ‘must not be compulsory and must be paid for at the [university]’s usual rate’. Teaching studentships offered outside the RCUK system have no such guarantee, meaning that PhD candidates can either be contracted to undertake a large amount of teaching as a condition of their award, or, in the absence of a formal contract, have unpaid work thrown at them whenever their institution deems fit. With most awards maintaining the standard three-year period, the overall effect on students’ academic progress is potentially catastrophic.

A former PhD candidate at UCL told FACE how the university simply stopped paying for teaching, despite it remaining compulsory for second- and third-year students on certain scholarships. ‘I wasn’t given a contract until well into my first year,’ she recalled. ‘One year they [i.e. management] doubled my teaching a week before September term started.’ Academic staff are all too aware of these bad practices. An employee at another London university described how ‘a recent graduate of mine wanted to take up such a studentship, even sacrificing the right supervisor for the opportunity to be funded. It devalues the research process and the opportunity for students to pursue research they want to do, and many applicants are absolutely clueless about the impact on their PhD and the exploitation involved in these opportunities.’ The supervisor persuaded her student to apply for a fully-funded studentship without teaching commitments instead, but emphasised that ‘many don’t know what they are getting into.’

Teaching studentships are generally designed to mirror research council awards, particularly in their financial aspects, thereby concealing the vast quantities of extra labour that many departments receive from these special arrangements. In some cases, however, there is a further level of concealment. In the University of Kent’s School of European Culture and Languages, five ‘50th anniversary scholarships’ were advertised this year, offering ‘a maintenance grant and a salary which will total an amount equivalent to that offered by the Research Councils for 2015’. Only when reading the small print would an applicant realise that, for every annual increment in the salary portion (in line with the national pay spine), ‘the scholarship element will be reduced so that the overall stipend paid will be as stated in the original award letter.’ In other words, students will be paid progressively less, in real terms, for every year of their PhD.

These exploitative positions, which require at the very least a good Master’s degree but pay significantly less than the Living Wage, aren’t only bad for the students who hold them. The existence of a readily available pool of what is essentially free labour, usually put to work on large, first-year undergraduate courses, allows universities to undermine the pay and conditions of other staff. In the event of strike action by unionised academic staff, PhD students can be made to pick up the slack, with the threat of academic sanctions if they refuse to meet the teaching obligations specified in their awards.

If your department or others in your institution offer these sorts of studentships—and especially if you’re a student in receipt of one—consider coming along to FACE’s next organising meeting, on August 25th at the University of Birmingham, to share your experience and help build a movement against the exploitation of academic labour across UK higher and further education. By combining local campaigns with strong organisation on a national level, we can fight casualisation and other forms of exploitation wherever they emerge, securing fair pay and conditions for all!

Photo: University of Derby T/B stairs, by Lottemess