Strike Against Casualisation part II

This post is a follow up to Steffan Blayney’s post, which starkly documented the current reliance on casual contracts in HE, the damage it is causing to the sector, and how the current ballot represents a chance to take a stand for our colleagues on precarious contracts.

In this post, we want to focus on the personal cost of casualisation. We’ve collected anonymised testimony from members and from a local survey on precarity we conducted in 2016. Also, a reminder: UCU is holding its annual meeting for staff on casual contracts; please get in touch with us if you want to get more involved in anti-cas campaigning at a local or national level.

These stories put a human face on the numbers. Over half of all academic staff in the UK are on insecure contracts, and while we do not have concrete numbers on how many professional services staff are in similar positions, the number is rising. In aggregate, this figure is sobering, but we must remember that the real toll that these contracts take is at a personal level.

If you have not yet submitted your ballot for Fair Work and Fair Pay, please do. Whatever your personal feelings on strike action, however you choose to vote, please DO vote — it is only by passing the anti-TU 50% threshold that we, as a union, have the opportunity to take this action for our colleagues, friends, and family members being impacted by casualisation.

Being in precarious, short-term employment has wide-ranging implications I would not have imagined prior to embarking on my current role. I now consider myself lucky that soon after finishing my doctorate I stumbled upon a job I stayed in for more than three years. My actions and experiences in my previous, more stable role provide a good juxtaposition to what I am dealing with now; I will take these issues in turn.

First, due to the short-term nature of my contract I do not feel I belong: since week 5 of my employment I have been applying for the next role. This means that I cannot emotionally commit to the place I would normally want to give all my attention. I do feel that I am keeping a distance from my students too; I cannot have them rely on me too much for support, as I am likely to be leaving at the end of the academic year. I would like to do a good job, as I know I owe it to my students now. However, making substantive changes, innovating, planning for the next academic year are well beyond the scope of my role.

I am not putting much effort into developing institutional connections either, although it would be in my nature to contribute – if I had more stability and long-term reason to do so. Previously I was involved in institutional learning and teaching initiatives, and outreach efforts; however, not in my current post. I keep my contact with colleagues to the minimum, avoid meetings if I can, and do not take on additional responsibilities. I am also aware the degree to which I am being instrumental in my decision-making; not embarking on the dissemination activities from my research as they do not hold currency in my current role or in getting a new one.

Second, I am acutely aware of the aspects of my career I cannot currently develop. For instance, for any future promotion I would need to show I could supervise research students – to which on a one-year contract I cannot commit to. More pressing is applying for grants: as my contract would not cover the duration of fellowships, I am often excluded at the institutional stage. This is of course compounded by the fact that on a (supposedly) research and teaching contract I was lumped with several modules with little support and practically no guidance.

Third, the continuous uncertainty is taking a toll on my personal life too. I cannot predict where the next job will find me: apparently, it is normal to expect early career researchers to move across the country every year or two. I find it hard to plan in multiple different ways: settling somewhere or having a family seem distant thoughts.

I am of course aware that precarity along with the regime of performance indicators is to control; with management dangling a potential future contract (do not think of anything fancy, it is another short-term one to plug teaching gaps), any vocal critique of the institutional system could be working against me. In short, I am not the citizen of my university I would like to be, and this is a direct result of my contractual situation. With this, I also recognise that I am more fortunate than friends and colleagues on shorter or zero hours contracts, with even higher teaching loads, and those who already gave up on academia due to the uncertainties of it.

Last summer I was working as a ‘GTA’ (in theory – I actually earned my PhD 3 years ago), teaching one course. I then picked up a full-time admin job at the University of Sheffield. It was decided that I could deliver my teaching in the lunch breaks of my admin job. Obviously I did my best at both jobs. There was no acknowledgement from HR that I had any cause for complaint. I have basically quit academia now. Everyone who I ever mention these experiences to is shocked. I think overall it has had a profound effect on my self-worth. It has trained me to think that my labour is worth very little.

During the time that I was working full time for the university doing admin and teaching in my lunch breaks, it obviously had a negative impact on my effectiveness. It was challenging to switch between these unrelated roles without any break, and it was upsetting that there was never any acknowledgement from senior colleagues that what was happening wasn’t really appropriate.

The work at the Uni makes me feel rather stupid at times – like a shift worker or like a child minder – I don’t feel valued except by one lecturer. I feel a completely replaceable – just there to fill the space with no real interest in what I might have to offer – my skill set and experience not valued. anyone will do in the end if they are cheap enough and got enough qualifications (that have little financial value in the end). The relationship doesn’t do much for my self-esteem – it does not feel like something that is building towards a career – no progression – no recognition of experience over years. Very poor. Better when the lecturer actually clearly shows you respect … I still consider myself the equal to the dept. staff – I am a researcher with knowledge and experience but demonstrating is not important – seminar work is undervalued and underfunded. The dept pretends to have global significance with many students from across the world – but they are being short changed to suit a reduced financial set up. Students short changed, debate restricted. Not impressed, I’ll stop this year. THE PAY IS JUST SIMPLY NOT HIGH ENOUGH AND YOU STAY ON THE SAME PAY REGARDLESS OF EXPERIENCE.

At the Uni – makes little difference – I get the library card which is useful. I don’t feel valued for who I am or what I offer – except in one module I do feel valued and wanted – but being valued is does not lead to a difference in payscale. This issue makes me feel mean and humiliated as if asking for more pay was greedy and below me. It is horrible. Demeaning. It contradicts the very ethos that the department installs in students.

I currently teach up up to 2 days per week, juggled with supervising a masters student and completing my final year of PhD. I am unpaid as I only was funded for 3 years so have to take on this teaching to try to earn some money. It is extremely stressful juggling these tasks and I still do not earn enough to cover my living expenses. I do not have fixed or regular teaching so I am always stressed about the following months. When I first joined as a PhD student I was in the process of recovering from mental health issues and I feel like the stresses of this year are not healthy to have.

I can not focus on my own PhD as much as I would like or supervise my student as fully as I would like.