Friday, September 6, 2013

More UK Universities Use Zero-Hours Contracts Than Research Shows

Student studying in library
Zero Hours = Zero Sum? (Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Carrie Dunn is a journalist and visiting lecturer in media and sociology - follow her on Twitter @carriesparkle

Lack of job security and extra non-contracted workload traps early career academics in a vicious cycle, says Carrie Dunn.

I was interested to see the research by the Universities and Colleges Union that found that universities are twice as likely to use zero-hours contracts as other industries. Well, I say interested - I was more surprised: surprised that it was only twice as likely.

The casualisation of teaching staff in higher education has been a problem for years.

When I first began teaching, shortly after I'd begun my PhD, I was asked to take on the entire teaching load of one of the department's senior members of staff, who was off on a research sabbatical. Of course, being young and wanting the money, I agreed.

But as a visiting or hourly-paid lecturer, you usually only get paid for the contact hours - the time you spend in front of a class, delivering material that you're not explicitly paid to produce.

You don't get sick pay or holiday pay; the great myth that is propagated is that your hourly rate builds all those extras into it.

So you might be working essentially full time. You're covering the workload of a senior member of staff - but you only get paid for the hours you're actually teaching, without any of the benefits and security of being employed, such as time to write and research and attend conferences.

And, just as we've seen with the problem of internships, you're unlikely to get a permanent position in a university unless you have some teaching experience already - so you're stuck in the cycle of hourly-paid lecturing.

Plus the fact you get senior staff telling you it's likely that there'll be a permanent position coming up soon, and you're in the best possible position as the management team know you already, as do the students, just sit tight … and you're too naive to realise you're being strung along.

The insecurity is distressing too.

Departments tend to wait until the last possible minute before confirming staff's research leave, meaning the casual staff are kept waiting before being offered a module, or two, or three, to teach. Writing course materials a couple of days before term starts is not fun.

One of my friends, who found himself in a similar position, says: "The problem with zero-hours contracts in higher education is that they fill a gap for both the academic and the university".

"After completing my PhD, jobs were hard to come by. The university allowed me to build my teaching portfolio by filling in the gaps of their curriculum. The problem for a new academic is that all teaching material has to be prepared from scratch, and preparation time is not included in a zero-hours contract".

"I ended up working at below minimum wage purely to gain some skills that would hopefully allow me to successfully apply for jobs".

"As I took more teaching roles, in order to make ends meet, it meant that I had less time to publish. This is now a central tenet of academia and seriously impeded my ability to successfully get interviews. Early career academics are in danger of being locked into a vicious cycle."

Universities will say that it's rare that their casual teaching staff are tied to one institution and they're free to work elsewhere and turn down hours if they like.

But casual teaching staff - often people early in their career - find themselves terrified of upsetting or alienating a department or institution that ideally they'd like to work for in a permanent position.

Sure, you can argue if a department treats its casual staff dismissively, the casual staff shouldn't want to work there; but there are only so many departments that fit in with academic specialisms.

If you want to research and teach on a particular topic, you only have a few potential employers to choose from.

It's worked out for me, now on a fixed-term contract rather than an hourly one, but I haven't got a family to support or any external obligations. In the meantime, early career academics are going to continue to leave the sector in favour of a more secure one. And who can blame them?

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