Exeter University & College Union (UCU) has launched a campaign to address widespread casualisation of academic staff at the University of Exeter.
The education union’s new general secretary, Jo Grady, introduced the initiative at a launch event on Friday.
She pointed at Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures for 2016-17 that show 64% of all academic staff at the University of Exeter are employed on insecure contracts.
The figures reveal that only 1275 of the university’s 3520 academic staff were permanently employed or possessed open-ended contracts.
2017-18 statistics show an unchanged distribution, with 1390 of a total of 3870 academic staff employed permanently or on open-ended contracts.
A University of Exeter spokesperson said: “The figures quoted by the UCU on casual contracts include anyone working on a very short term basis to undertake marking or teaching which comprises around 4.5% of our total academic workforce.”
The question of how, and whether, to include very short term employees in academic staff figures is vexed. HESA began collecting statistics on hourly-paid and zero hours contract employees for its 2017/18 data set after consultation with staff representatives, but conclusions drawn from this new information depend on how it is interpreted.
HESA’s definition of “atypical” staff excludes very short term academic employees from comparison with staff on other contract types despite significant numbers of people being employed this way.
Philippa Davey, an official at UCU’s South West regional branch said: “UCU have requested figures for the workforce at Exeter University on numerous occasions but are yet to receive a full breakdown of hourly paid, casual, fixed term and permanent staff.”
Rhian Keyse, Exeter UCU Vice-President and a member of UCU’s national anti-casualisation campaign committee, presented the findings of UCU research into the impact of insecure employment contracts at the campaign launch.
Of nearly 4000 UK university staff employed on insecure contracts surveyed earlier this year, almost 60% said they had struggled to make ends meet.
71% said they believed their mental health had been damaged by working on insecure contracts and 83% said their contractual status made it hard to make long-term family plans or long-term financial commitments such as buying a house.
85% said they had considered leaving the sector in the last twelve months, with the number one reason for doing so being the lack of job security.
Rhian Keyse also said insecure employment contracts were detrimental to the student experience. 67% of teaching staff said they did not have enough paid time to enable them to prepare adequately for their classes and 44% said they did not have access to adequate facilities to provide feedback and support to students.
She said that teaching staff have to deliver student contact sessions in non-private spaces such as coffee shops or the Forum atrium due to lack of access to appropriate space in which to discuss what may be confidential or sensitive issues, such as grades.
Philippa Davey said: “We have evidence from members regarding contact sessions being delivered in spaces that are not confidential and of a lack of the basic resources required to deliver quality teaching and tutorials.”
The university said it does not compel teaching staff to conduct student contact sessions in non-private spaces such as coffee shops.
In addition, the university restricts postgraduate students to a maximum of six hours work each week, in line with research council award conditions on studentship holders, whether or not students are funded. However, in contrast with other comparable institutions, it continues to impose this limit after award periods end.
Philippa Davey said: “Students with no other form of income are disadvantaged by this ruling. We have members who have been unable to feed themselves, pay rent or bills and have had to seek work outside the university to enable them to survive. If other universities allow additional hours, why does Exeter insist on applying this rule?”
The university said that the rationale for restricting postgraduate student working hours is an educational rather than organisational decision intended to protect study time and support students in completing their postgraduate degrees.
A growing body of peer-reviewed academic research indicates that the efficiency gains claimed for flexible employment arrangements are illusory, and only save money at the cost of organisational learning, knowledge accumulation and knowledge sharing, thus damaging innovation and labour productivity growth.
UCU’s research reflects these findings: 81% of researchers said their research activity had been negatively affected by employment on short-term contracts, only 21% agreed that casual employment was an “economical and cost-effective” way to employ research staff and 95% said that more secure employment would help foster genuinely innovative research activity.
The university said that it has introduced new business rules on temporary working to ensure that short term contracts are only used in specific circumstances, such as to support ad hoc marking or teaching.
Philippa Davey said: “The research is very clear. The continued marketisation of education does not lead to higher standards or increased quality, rather the reverse. The flexibility and efficiencies are only a gain for the employer, not for the workers or the students.”
The University of Exeter has already changed its approach to employing postgraduate students after pressure from the UCU.
In September 2018 Sir Steve Smith, the university’s vice-chancellor, said postgraduate students who worked regular or pre-scheduled hours would be employed on annual contracts, conferring benefits enjoyed by permanent employees such as sick leave, maternity pay and access to the university pension scheme.
However the change was a temporary pilot scheduled to run for one year, and did not apply to other hourly paid teaching staff. The university said that it has since extended the scheme.
Philippa Davey said: “UCU has been raising the issue of casualisation at the University of Exeter for a number of years. It is only in the past twelve months that we have seen any real movement. Our members are very clear that progress made so far, although very welcome, is not fast enough.
“We acknowledge the work that management have done to convert graduate workers to fractional contracts but this was very slow to start and initially did not include UCU.”
A university spokesperson said: “We share the UCU’s desire to provide the best possible job security and financial stability to everyone who works at the University of Exeter and together we have made good progress in recent years.”
“This includes from August 2018 paying the Living Wage to casual workers benefiting several hundred people and the introduction in 2018/19 of new contract arrangements for postgraduate students working as teachers.”
“In the coming months, we will continue to seek to work with UCU and our postgraduates to get the right balance between flexible working, supporting postgraduate study and improving contracts of work.”
Other universities have made significant changes to their employment practices. The University of Sheffield has agreed to end the use of casual contracts, Durham University has scrapped nine month teaching contracts and the Open University has moved 4000 associate lecturers onto permanent contracts.
Exeter UCU has now begun a formal negotiation process with the University of Exeter which it aims to conclude by the end of the 2020 summer term so that changes are implemented by this time next year.
A university spokesperson said: “Building on joint work in the 2018/19 academic year, the University of Exeter has advised the UCU that we are keen to work with them on the important issues they raise on short and fixed term contracts with an open offer to develop a joint approach.”
Philippa Davey said: “We have signed off a number of agreements across the South West with other institutions. The claim we have submitted formalises the requests we have made and sets a realistic time line for making progress.”
She added: “We look forward to working with management to ensure staff and students get the very best from the institution as an employer and educator.”