Students have got it bad for sure, but do spare a thought also for the people who work the universities. Being an academic over the past six years can't have been easy. Following the tuition fee hike in 2010 came a new era of uncertainty as thousands of academic jobs were under threat. The government introduced a market system into the way universities are funded: money would follow the students; if you couldn't get the students in, you wouldn't get the funding. Whole departments shut down, failing to attract students and being deemed unprofitable by university managers. To top it all off, vice chancellors started awarding themselves and the senior managers around them five-figure pay increases each year while academic pay flatlined.
At the beginning of May, 65 percent of the members of lecturers' union the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), voted for strike action today and tomorrow [Wednesday and Thursday]. Their main grievance relates to pay – they've only been offered a 1.1 per cent pay increase this year. Their wages have affectively decreased by as much as 15 per cent over the past decade when you take inflation into account. But another of their demands highlights a more pernicious aspect of British universities today; the use of casualised and "zero hour" contracts.
I woke up one day and I couldn't go to work, I just started crying.
I spoke to Victoria Blake, chair of the UCU's anti-casualisation campaign. A former academic herself, Victoria left the profession two years ago after suffering a self-described breakdown. "In retrospect," Vicky says, "my breakdown had been coming for a while. I woke up one day and I couldn't go to work, I just started crying. I'd been having issues with stress and heart palpitations."
"I was working seven different zero hours contracts at two universities," she says. "I had teaching jobs, research assistant jobs and other academic related contracts all at the same time. I was working 70 hours a week but being paid for fewer than 40 of those. I was on less than minimum wage when I worked it out once." Poor pay is something felt particularly acutely by women in the sector. The average shortfall faced by female academics was £6,103 a year, and the gender gap is another reason for today's strike.
"I always describe it as a shifting patchwork," says Vicky. "You're trying to scrape together a living overall. You're delighted at first that you get another contract when another one's just finishing; there's a constant juggling of hours and how to fit things in and timetables as well. It wears you down."
These difficult circumstances were made even worse when she became ill. "It was difficult then because on some of my contracts I got sick pay, and on some others I didn't. So ironically then, because of those contracts, I couldn't afford to be sick even though my working conditions were making me sick."
Vicky left teaching shortly after and moved into a non-academic job at her university. "These stories are absolutely common to the teaching profession," she says. "I hear a lot worse even. I'm not unusual. So many people I know people who have left the profession completely because of these conditions. I'm having conversations with people all over the place who are asking if they can retrain – many as teachers; people are so desperate."
Zero hour and part-time contracts are often pedalled by universities as a short-term step in an academic's career – a few years of precarious, demanding work with the pay-off of a permanent contract later. Examples from academia show, however, that universities are now using these contracts for constant employment of staff.
"If you want to see where universities are going, especially in the context of casualisation of work, London Met is a good example," says a female lecturer at London Metropolitan University. She who doesn't want to be named for fear of having work taken away, having been on a zero hours contract for over a decade. "Our union branch estimates that about 600 of a total of 1,400 staff here are on zero hours contracts. Essentially we're cheaper for the university and they think they can get away with it."
In what sounds like an extract from a John Steinbeck novel, the academic explains how they're selected for work on the zero hours contract: "The way it works here is that they tell you in September whether the university needs you for the year. The staff get told four weeks before term starts whether they're going to be wanted or not. We're kept waiting all summer to see if we'll get work for the next year. At that time they can reduce your hours as well. If the student numbers go down, they take your work away. It's impossible for staff."
Like Vicky Blake, the London Met lecturer suffered a breakdown because of her work. "In September about four years ago the university cut my teaching hours significantly. I became very, very stressed and didn't, I suppose, know how to live. I have a long-term disability and this was made acutely worse by this stress. I ended up in hospital. I was under unbearable anxiety. I wanted to die at one point, I think. I couldn't stand not knowing where my money, my way to make a living, was coming from."
"As a woman, major decisions about having children, about having a place to have those children, having a place to live with those children, just can't be made because of my work. I don't have a permanent job; I can't take those sorts of decisions. I've reached a point in my life where I can't work like this any longer and plan to leave academia altogether."
It might come as a surprise, but higher education is one of the most prolific users of zero hour contracts. As of 2014, up to 50 per cent of teaching staff in British universities were employed on such contracts according to the UCU. The mental toll of such this kind of work on employees in other sectors such as retail and leisure has been well documented.
What perhaps obscures knowledge of these working conditions in universities is the aura of prestige and privilege that still hangs about academia. But this ivory tower view of universities and those who work in them is fast becoming out dated. Modern British universities are businesses. In a fairly hostile market for students and funding these businesses are passing this uncertainty onto their workers.
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