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University & college staff do two days unpaid work every week

20 June 2022

Staff at colleges and universities across the United Kingdom are doing the equivalent of at least two days unpaid work every week, according to a report that lays bare the extent of the workload crisis gripping post-16 education.

The report by UCU, the third of its kind, is based on the responses of more than 13,000 workers in universities, colleges, prison and adult and community education.

The report details sky-high levels of overwork across all sectors in post-16 education that would breach Working Time Regulations of a maximum 48 hour working week and fall short of Health and Safety Executive mandated stress management standards , requiring urgent action by employers. Staff also provide first-hand testimony about the impact the workload crisis is having on their professionalism.

In universities, the responses paint a bleak picture and show staff on the lowest wages and most insecure contracts are being forced to work the longest hours, the equivalent of up to four extra days unpaid per week. UCU has accused employers of 'dining off the good will and dedication of staff' and of overseeing 'grotesque levels of exploitation'.

Graduate teaching assistants, some of the most casualised members of staff in higher education, are working the full time equivalent (FTE) of over 64 (64.4) hours per week; university staff on zero-hours contracts work the FTE of 63 (62.8) hours per week; and those on term-time only contracts work the FTE of 67 (66.8) hours per week. Over 14,000 academic staff are employed on term time only contracts and over 3,500 academic staff are on zero hour contracts. Graduate teaching assistants are normally also postgraduate researchers, of which there are over 100,000 in the UK.

Overall, 87% of university staff say their workload has increased over the past 3 years, with more than two-thirds (68%) saying it has increased significantly.

In further education , 93% of college staff say their workload has increased over the past three years with more than three quarters (77%) saying it has increased significantly. More than four in 10 (41.6%) college staff say their workload is unmanageable. UCU said, in England, the workload crisis risks undermining the government's levelling up agenda, saying that ministers and employers are setting 'the sector up to fail.'

In prison education, nine in ten (89.5%) educators say their workload has increased over the past three years, with one in ten (9.8%) saying it is entirely unmanageable and almost a quarter (23.9%) saying it is unmanageable most of the time.

The administrative burden in post-16 education

Workers across colleges and universities both cite more administrative work as a significant reason for workload increases. In colleges, 88% of staff say that admin work has increased over the past three years. Meanwhile, university staff who teach say that general and departmental administrative work has increased by 83% over the past three years.

Covid was clearly a factor in workloads increasing. College staff ranked both increases in the use of technology for marking, communication and admin and increases in online working within the top five reasons for additional workloads. University staff said the move to online and 'hybrid' learning has created much more work.

The survey was conducted in November and December 2021. The answers to the number of extra hours staff work per week are based on a standard contractual 35-hour working week.

Around 50k staff at UK universities have taken 13 days of strike action over workload pressures and the exploitation of casualised workers in the sector. The dispute is still live and many staff are currently undertaking a marking boycott. The union says this report is yet more evidence as to why to action is justified.

A strike ballot also opened last week at 33 colleges in England over low pay and high workloads.

Last year the Health and Safety Executive found the University of East London breached health and safety law over workplace stress following a complaint from UCU over dangerous workloads.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'This report lays bare the shocking reality for education staff in colleges and universities across the UK who are forced to work the equivalent of two days for free each week. Employers are knowingly dining off the goodwill and dedication of staff and breaching vital safeguards, which if not addressed could result in investigations from the health and safety executive. To treat staff in this way, all whilst holding down pay and attacking terms and conditions, shows the extent to which grotesque levels of exploitation have become commonplace in education.

'It is particularly damning that university staff on the lowest wages and most insecure contracts are the ones forced to work longest for free. Staff at the bottom of the ladder like graduate teaching assistants and those on 'zero-hours' contracts work the full-time equivalent of four extra days per week. The report also shows how staff on term time only contracts work the full-time equivalent of almost a whole extra week every week because they are not paid during the holidays. It is simply unconscionable that vice-chancellors continue to exploit their employees in this way.

'These findings must be a wake up call to employers and governments, not least the one in Westminster, which claims it has put skills at the heart of a 'levelling up' agenda. If this workload crisis is not addressed with urgency, all education leaders and ministers will have done to set the sector up to fail.

'The survey responses also show that toxic levels of administrative work are a prime cause of unmanageable workloads across every setting including in prison education. Education bosses, governments and funding bodies need to reduce the burdensome box ticking exercises and free staff up to focus on the things that matter, like teaching, supporting students and research.

'Unmanageable workloads are a symptom of a wider malaise in post-16 education in which staff are treated merely as units of labour with little thought or care for their welfare. Vice-chancellors, college principals and other education leaders now need to read this report carefully, listen to their staff and work with us to address this crisis.'

Last updated: 20 June 2022