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UCEA: drawing a veil over precarious work

28 January 2016

A response by University College London to BIS's higher education green paper consultation suggests that the employers' body UCEA has been attempting to create obfuscation and confusion around the sector's enormous reliance on casualised labour.

Citing an as yet unpublished UCEA commentary, UCL's response suggests:

  1. that universities are unaware of any evidence of a link between contractual arrangements and the quality of teaching

    [In fact, there is well-established research in the USA which has made exactly this link. We need only refer UCEA to the work of the Delphi Project in the United States which has studied this issue in depth and which finds that through no fault of their own, no matter how good they are as teachers, part-time faculty employed on casual contracts have working conditions that make it impossible for them to reproduce the frequent and high quality interactions with students that can be achieved by those on decent, secure contracts. UCEA and UK universities in general may be unaware of this research, but ignorance, as they say, is not a defence.]
  2. that institutions make extensive use of casual contracts to bring in practising professionals to teach small elements of a wider programme

    [This is partially true. Institutions do make use of casual worker contracts and sometimes part-time employment contracts to bring in practising professionals and obviously this would need to be reflected in any metric that was devised for the TEF, but it is risible to suggest that this accounts for the majority of staff on casual contracts. Even just looking at the highly unreliable atypical worker data as an index, it simply implausible to suggest that institutions employing thousands of atypical workers in teaching are simply giving a bit of work to professionals to bump up the salaries from their practices. Isn't it more likely that many of them are PhD students doing teaching during their studies on contracts that give them inferior employment rights?]
  3. that this is in fact a small issue.

    [UCL's response cites UCEA calculations which show that the full-time equivalent of teaching being conducted by atypical workers was in fact very small (3% by their calculations). But UCEA's calculations are grossly misleading. Atypical worker numbers are not only reported wildly differently by different universities, they often represent only a fraction of the staff doing teaching on hourly paid casual contracts. They are not a proxy for the casualised workforce, they are the tip of a very nasty iceberg. We can see this by comparing it with the data that universities themselves disclosed in response to our FOI on zero-hours contracts in 2013. Take London Metropolitan University, for example, which reported to HESA that it employed around 500 staff on atypical contracts but reported to us that it had more than 800 zero-hours contracts for teaching. Or Nottingham Trent University, which reported no atypical workers at all but revealed to us more than 600 zero-hours contracts. Or Lancaster, which reported 240 atypical workers but almost 750 staff on zero-hours contracts. Our local negotiations with some employers are revealing a complex picture in which universities employ hourly paid teaching staff on a wide variety of different casual contracts, of which those staff working on zero-hours contracts or atypical worker contracts are only part. Many thousands more hourly paid staff are simply concealed within the HESA staff record, recorded as either fixed-term or sometimes even as permanent part-time employees. Their precarious status is literally invisible to external scrutiny.]

The truth is that the university sector has a lot of very dirty linen on this issue and any attempt by UCEA to portray precarious labour as a marginal matter is nothing more than a shabby attempt to throw people off the scent. It is disgraceful that so many universities still appear to be doing everything possible to avoid telling the truth about their reliance on precarious labour. It's also notably out of step with a growing consensus among those actually engaged in academic labour that precarious employment needs to be tackled. We would certainly agree with the Royal Society, for example, who note in their response to the Green Paper that 'any shift toward a casualised teaching workforce is unlikely to promote professionalisation of university teaching, since a workforce without job security is less likely to invest in improving teaching practice.'
It has long been time for the university sector to pull its head out of the ground on this issue. A few are beginning to talk to the UCU about improving job security and improving career pathways. We would love to see more of them take this path, for the sake of teaching quality yes, but also for the sake of the many thousands of casualised staff who struggle to build a career or even get by in our 'world-class' universities.

Last updated: 7 March 2019