Strike Against Casualisation

Our thanks to SUCU member Steffan Blayney for writing this post on the scandalous reliance on casual labour in Higher Education and its importance in our current ballot.

Have you experienced casualisation while working in HE? UCU is currently conducting a national survey on insecure contracts. We are also collecting anonymous stories to putting together a collection of local stories of how casualisation has impacted the University of Sheffield. If you are intersted in being part of it, please contact us at

Strike Against Casualisation

The current ballot is not simply about pay. Like all industrial disputes, it is a claim about the nature of our work, and the relative expectations and responsibilities of workers and management, and like all disputes in our sector it is in the last instance an argument over the nature and purpose of education. As well as specific demands over pay, tackling the gender pay gap, and reducing workload, the current claim seeks to tackle the accelerating problems of casualisation and precarity in higher education.

The national picture

Currently, UCU estimates that over half of all academic staff in the UK are now employed on some form of insecure contract. These might include PhD students who teach during their studies, external or ‘visiting’ lecturers, or the large numbers of academics who depend on short fixed-term or hourly-paid contracts for their living.

In professional services roles, we see similar insecure contracts, plus attempts at cost-cutting restructures, redundancies and consequent increasing workloads in failed attempts of ‘doing more for less’. Students are also faced with zero hours on campus, where they are routinely employed by their own university and by for-profit subsidiaries, often below the living wage foundation rate, whilst being squeezed by lifetime of debt, cuts to grants and bursaries and unaffordable rent. Casualisation is an attack on the HE sector and to the very communities it’s supposed to support.

This accelerating expansion of these conditions hits those of us at the bottom of the academic career ladder hardest. ‘Junior’ staff, from graduate teaching assistants to lecturers, are far more likely to lack job security than their more senior colleagues. Fixed-term contracts are now overwhelmingly the norm for early-career academics, who increasingly find ourselves facing the prospect of regular upheaval, moving from place to place, year on year, to chase a series of low-paid, short-term posts.

For many of us, even the limited reprise of a 9-month contract is starting to look attractive in the face of the alternative, as universities’ increasing reliance on forms of casual employment leaves larger numbers of teaching and research staff on zero-hours contracts or ‘worker’ arrangements, with lower pay, fewer rights and no guarantee of work from week to week.

Two fifths (41%) of staff on casual contracts work 30 hours or less a week and nearly a third (30%) earn less than £1000 a month. Moreover, these amounts are subject to wide variation with staff often unable to predict how much they will earn from month to month. A 2015 report by UCU found that a significant number of academics on precarious contracts struggled to get by. 21% said they struggled to pay for food, 35% struggled to keep up with rent or mortgage repayments, while 42% struggled to pay household bills.

UCU is calling on universities nationwide to commit to a new industrial-level action plan to create greater security of employment for all employees. We want to see institutions commit to ending zero-hours contracts and exploitative ‘worker’ arrangements, transfer hourly-paid teaching staff to fractional contracts, and commit to open-ended contracts for greater numbers of research staff.

Casualisation at Sheffield

The impact of precarity at Sheffield is difficult to gauge, with the University being one of 36 higher education institutions to completely ignore a 2018 Freedom of Information request from UCU on the amount of teaching currently carried out by hourly-paid staff.

From the information available, however, it seems that the situation at Sheffield in many ways reflects the national picture. Last year, our UCU branch won an important victory, by negotiating for a commitment from management to move casual teaching staff onto employment contracts. This is a welcome and positive shift in policy, but has been implemented slowly by management: as of the time of writing, casual worker agreements are still in use in some departments, and the employers are still excluding some teaching from this commitment.

Clearly, there is still a huge amount of work to be done to combat creeping casualisation at our institution. For example, while the University claims it ‘doesn’t employ staff on zero hours contracts’, Sheffield maintains a ‘Registration Agreement for Casual Work’ which leaves large numbers of staff with no guarantee of work, reduced benefits, and limited employment rights.

Across the whole university, only 35% of total academic staff are on insecure contracts. Below the level of professors and senior academics however, the figures are far more worrying. 77.5% of research assistants and teaching assistants are on fixed-term contracts, higher than the national average. 72.5% of lecturers, research fellows and teaching fellows also lack permanent contracts (again higher than average). This compares to figures of only 17% of senior lecturers/fellows, just 3.2% of professors and precisely 0% of heads of departments.

The point of these comparisons is not to divide one set of academics against another, but to draw attention to the deterioration of working conditions across the sector under the current regime of mercenary, ends-focused and profit-driven higher education. In this important sense, the ongoing battle to protect our pensions and the renewed fight against casualisation are two fronts in the same conflict.

The case against casualisation

Where casual arrangements become widespread, employers seek to get something for nothing. Hourly-paid teaching contracts routinely fail to allow enough time for preparation, marking, emails or meetings with students. As a result, unpaid hours become a regular feature of casualised work. Early-career academics are oftenforced to work between different institutions or commute long distances, without being reimbursed for the time or cost of travel. The increasing use of fixed-term teaching contracts of 9 months duration mean that academics are often left without any source of income over the summer.

The passion and enthusiasm of university staff for our work – the lifeblood of any educational institution – has become a resource for employers to ruthlessly exploit. The very qualities on which universities trade – our commitment to our students, our desire to produce outstanding research – have become the conditions of our exploitation, with many of us feeling forced into accepting unfair terms of employment – effectively working for free – simply to remain in higher education.

Of course, this extra labour is not distributed evenly, with the burden of precarious work falling predominantly on younger members of staff, and disproportionately on women, staff with disabilities and those from ethnic minorities. The extensive use of insecure contracts in higher education is incompatible with a commitment to diversity.

The stresses of insecure employment also take their toll on our health, wellbeing and home-life. A 2018 Times Higher Education survey found that keeping a balance between work and relationships was most difficult for research students and early-career academics, with just 5% of doctoral students and 3% of postdoctoral researchers reporting no impact. These groups reported that they would find it difficult to imagine starting a family in their current conditions of work. Early-career researchers were twice as likely as professors to consider leaving the profession, while only 8% would recommend a career in higher education to their children.

Finally, it must be stressed that casualisation and precarity threaten the very purpose of the university, the quality of teaching and research, and the meaning of higher education. Overworked and underpaid teaching staff, hired by the hour and inadequately compensated for their labour, cannot be expected to teach to their best ability. Nevertheless, UCU estimates that up to 40% of undergraduate teaching is currently delivered in exactly this way. Research staff constantly moving from contract to contract, always on the lookout for their next job, likewise can’t be expected to produce the standards of work their ability and training has made them capable of. UCU surveys suggest that a third of researchers are forced to spend 25% of their contracted time working towards their next appointment.

Where academic employment is insecure, universities (now overwhelmingly driven by market forces) are able to cut ‘unprofitable’ courses, reduce departments to a skeleton permanent staff, or dispose of them entirely, regardless of their merit or educational value. It is only by fighting casualisation in our own institutions – ensuring stability and security for all our colleagues – that we can defend the integrity of our workplaces, reverse the trend of marketisation and reassert the value of education as an intrinsic public good.