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Universities are using casual contracts to put profit before people

Kehinde Andrews


In 2009-10, during the final year of my PhD at the University of Birmingham, a decision was made on high to close one of the flagship departments of British sociology. The rationale was that they could offer a degree in the subject without the expense of a large team of highly trained specialists. As one of the managers put it at the time “we are all social scientists”. So why invest in a department of sociology when the degree could be taught by a range of other staff?

We organised a campaign to attempt to save our department, complete with petitions, protests and placards. But we were fighting against an irrepressible force of marketisation that in hindsight we had no prospect of preventing. Eventually the decision was made to close the department, relocate the degree to the politics faculty and retain only five staff from a subject that once employed 18 people, including losing the two professors.

It is no coincidence, then, that Birmingham has been highlighted in the Guardian’s investigation into the casualisation of the higher education workforce, as the Russell Group institution with the highest amount of staff – 70% – on insecure contracts, which is part of a wider trend of market forces transforming the sector. With students paying such high fees for their education, we really need to question where this money is going.

Looking back at our campaign, one of the most important (and catchy) slogans was that we wanted support for “students, not Starbucks”. At the same time the university was slashing the teaching staff, it was investing in a multimillion-pound building project with the coffee chain as its centrepiece. As this week’s reporting reveals, Birmingham is currently undergoing £500m of building refurbishments.

It is clear that the problem of the casualisation of the workforce is not caused by a lack of money in universities but rather what is prioritised when they become a marketplace. Institutions across the country are spending millions investing in buildings, facilities and eye-wateringly expensive halls of residence. The ever-increasing pay of vice-chancellors is also testament to the money that is actually available.

But as much as we academics may complain about this spending, it is a model that makes good business sense. Potential customers (students) are attracted to the facilities that are available on campuses, which are relentlessly sold on open days. A major coffee chain has now become as essential a feature to a university as a library. Although such cafes presumably pay for themselves, our argument was about the symbol of marketisation they represent.

My own university, Birmingham City, recently moved from a deprived inner-city neighbourhood into a modern new building in the city centre. Most of my students have said that, regardless of the quality of the education, they would not have applied had we remained in the old building and location. The management at the University of Birmingham was also right about sociology; having a skeleton staff and no professors did not dent recruitment on to the degree.

And casual contracts in fact play a vital role in universities. My first job was as an hourly paid graduate teaching assistant running student seminars. This was invaluable experience, without which I am certain that I would not have my current job. The PhD students who are teaching a number of my seminar classes, on temporary part-time contracts or paid hourly, allow me to spend time doing the research that is fed back into my teaching. Short-term contracts are also necessary when academics win research grants and need time to dedicate to their projects.

This does not, however, explain the extraordinary levels of casualisation that we are seeing. I was lucky in that I only had to work at four different insecure jobs at the same time for six months – including doing data entry at a solicitor’s firm – before I landed the holy grail of a permanent full-time contract. One of my colleagues has spent the past seven years on temporary contracts at the same university, despite having launched and coordinated a masters programme. This precarity threatens to undermine the value of university education and deters people from entering the profession in the first place.

I know of a number of people who have abandoned academia completely. It turns out that having to supplement your pitiful income working in a call centre or as a cleaner is not the pay-off that my colleagues were expecting after years of investing in their education.

Part of the reason that redbrick universities tend to have a more casualised workforce is because of the increasing split between research and teaching. The mechanisms for evaluating research incentivise universities with the resources to invest in leading research staff, who spend very little time in the classroom. So a university may have the leading scholars in a field but students will be taught by junior staff, quite often on precarious contracts, who do not have the time or security to develop their research careers.

At the other end of this spectrum is the focus of some universities on being “teaching focused”. I have a colleague who was stuck bouncing between temporary part-time contracts for five years at redbrick universities, while being rejected for jobs at newer universities because he was deemed to be too “research focused” for the students. The lack of jobs in the sector in general means that there is always someone ready to snap up the crumbs of insecure positions when they become available.

Ultimately, the casualisation of the academic workforce undermines the quality of the education that is provided, short-changing not only the staff, who suffer the consequences of low-paid, insecure work, but also the students.