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British Universities Are Making Academics Work on Zero-Hours Contracts

Warwick University just closed it's temping agency for lecturers, but academics are still being subjected to the shitty work-conditions you'd expect from a summer job.
June 5, 2015, 3:10pm

Students at Warwick University campaigning against cuts. Photo by Jake Lewis.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Over the coming weeks at house parties and nights out across the country, newly-graduated students will celebrate their last days at university, putting off the arduous process of thinking about the "real world" for a few more rounds. While none of them will relish the loan repayments soon to be chiseled off their paychecks for the next few decades, they might reflect that its worth it for a nice Graduate Job®, and the attendant loadsamoney they will naturally be earning.

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Unfortunately, the same forces that have reshaped the cost-and-payment model of the universities from which they have recently emerged, have also been working hard to transform the universities themselves. Whilst students squint into the blindingly bright future they've been sold, their teacher's situation is increasingly dire.

Whatever their subject, graduates will have received hundreds of hours of teaching from academics working in employment conditions that are more familiar in the sort of low-commitment summer job traditionally regarded as a prelude to a proper career. We are in the age of zero-hours academics, where only the most eminent have permanent, secure employment.

Seminar tutors, lab demonstrators, and even some lecturers are often on temporary or fixed term contracts, paid on an hourly basis—rather than on a permanent contract with a salary. Such hourly-paid teaching staff range in age and experience from current PhD students, through to staff well into middle age working on a series of short-term contracts. Job descriptions, conditions and rates of pay vary widely between universities, and even between the various departments of the same university. In many cases universities don't pay for enough hours to cover the work actually required, leaving staff to do the job badly or work unpaid overtime, finishing up effectively with less than the minimum wage.

Over the last year or so, Warwick University has been working on a new scheme called Teach Higher, which they presented as a way of simplifying the position of hourly-paid staff and overcoming the problems outlined above.

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The details first became widely known outside Warwick in April, when the group Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (FACE) posted a blog on the subject. (Full disclosure—I am a member of this group.)

The FACE blog pointed out that Teach Higher would amount to outsourcing the employment of teaching staff. Lecturers would be employed not by the university in which they work but by a separate company owned by the university but legally distinct from it. The Teach Higher website included a sample "Temporary Worker Agreement" that anyone recruited by the company would have to sign.

This showed that staff would be "workers" for the purposes of employment legislation, a status which confers fewer rights compared to "employees." The agreement also stated that a Teach Higher worker could be sacked at any time with no notice. Such working conditions are normal in many industries, but why, FACE asked, was a Russell Group university planning to treat its teaching staff like they were stacking shelves at a high street shop?

The university's response was agitated. Taking time off from his Easter Bank Holiday weekend to argue with strangers on Twitter, Warwick's Director of Press Peter Dunn came across as exasperated and out of his depth. He said criticisms of Teach Higher were "absolute nonsense," "simply not true," or "untrue I'm afraid," as if people were being stupid to even ask questions.

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In a matter of hours, several changes had been made to the Teach Higher website. The Temporary Worker Agreement was removed from view and the description of Teach Higher was changed, to present it as a department of the university rather than a separate company. Staff would still be directly employed, Dunn insisted—Teach Higher was simply a way to streamline the process by which they were recruited and paid, providing clarity, transparency and consistency across the university.

The claim that Teach Higher was about transparency is a joke. The Warwick branch, and the regional office, of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) raised a series of questions with the university about hourly-paid staff over a year ago. Instead of responding to these questions or agreeing to a meeting, the university began to draw up plans for Teach Higher, which the Union discovered only by accident when reading the minutes of a Board of Graduate Studies meeting. It doesn't seem very transparent to drawn up a plan in secret, consult nobody about it, then change one's descriptions of it when questioned.

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On Tuesday Warwick announced that they had abandoned the scheme, saying that "ongoing scrutiny of Teach Higher has become a distraction." The university has been under a lot of pressure over the issue. Despite their insistence that it did not represent outsourcing, a lot of people weren't convinced, pointing out that that the university planned to franchise and export the model to other universities after a pilot at Warwick. This was unsettlingly reminiscent of the Warwick-owned temp agency called Uni Temps, which is most definitely used to outsource staff.

The UCU voted at its national congress to campaign against Teach Higher, as did the Warwick Student Union and a number of Warwick departments. Twenty-two hourly-paid Sociology tutors told the head of the department that they would not work through Teach Higher. A protest had been planned to coincide with the university open day on June 19.

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In that context, it's hard not to see the university's position as an admission of defeat. "This is absolutely a victory," a member of the Hourly Paid Tutor Group told me, "the university backed down because we were organized and ran an effective campaign that showed why Teach Higher was not the solution to the casualization of higher education."

Nevertheless, the problem of casualization has not gone away. After all, Uni Temps is already used to recruit academic staff at some universities, including Leicester. An hourly-paid tutor at Warwick who was anomalously employed through Uni Temps participated in the official UCU strikes last academic year, and was fired shortly afterwards—because, she claims, of her participation in the strike. "Because my contract could be cancelled at any time—that's what Uni Temps are—I got sacked," she told me. It would be illegal to sack an employee for participating in industrial action, but not an outsourced worker.

The academic profession is being reshaped according to a two tier model—a shrinking core of relatively secure permanent staff gradually being withdrawn from teaching to focus on the prestige (and grant money) brought by research, and a growing periphery of workers on short term or hourly-paid contracts who do the job of teaching students. This latter group are often classified as "early career," on the assumption that they can count on moving up to the higher group sooner rather than later. But the prospects of career progression are, for many, a mirage.

Uncertainty and insecurity used to just be features of retail or manufacturing work. Recently those conditions have infected a lot of middle class professions too. The really scary thought for graduates is not so much that they are leaving behind a world of insecurity, but that they are entering one. When even the people prepping you for the horrible game of life are struggling, you know something's not right.

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