Published: 28th February, 2022
In this next edition of our new series of Picket blog posts, one Leicester UCU member reflects on their experience of casualisation.
If you would like to contribute to this ongoing series, please forward any pieces to Cara Dobbing, Communications Officer (firstname.lastname@example.org). This may be a reflection of a particular day’s picketing, or a wider reflection on how you feel about the current disputes.
22 February 2022: Universities UK – the body that erroneously describes itself as “the collective voice of 140 universities across the UK” – votes to force through staggering, unjustifiable cuts to our pension scheme. Meanwhile, I had been reflecting on the Four Fights dispute, in which we’re striking for fair pay, job security, manageable workloads and equality. Looking back on my twelve years as an academic from the vantage point of the picket line, I considered the extent to which I’d ever really experienced these things – fair pay, job security, manageable workload and equality. Now that I can no longer expect to be rewarded in retirement, I ask myself, is it all worth it?
In one of my first teaching jobs, I was contracted to convene two modules with more than a hundred students and to supervise around fifteen student projects, for £5,000. Conservatively estimating the number of hours I did to deliver this, the rate of pay was around £8 or 9 per hour. Fair pay? The university might claim to have paid an hourly rate of £20, but that’s because their workload model said that it takes 3 hours to write a lecture and 20 minutes to mark a 3,000 word assignment. In reality, it easily takes twice that amount of time, often more.
Worse, the university proposed to pay me in a lump sum at the end of the academic year. Even fairer pay! I had a screaming row with a person in a Human Resources department there, about the ins and outs of being expected to work for the best part of nine months before getting paid. The most I could get out of them was 2 lump sums, one at end of each semester. This arrangement, combined with the other 3 jobs I had concurrently, caused havoc with my tax codes, led to massive overpayments of tax, which took days of my time to sort out and reclaim. Casualisation, in such ways, means workers often have to fight to get paid what they are owed.
Worse still – or at least, more insultingly – additional work came up as I was due to start and when I asked for it, the line manager told me (and I’m only barely paraphrasing here): “that would take you over the hours threshold for which we’d have to give you a proper contract, so no”. The nakedness of this wilful adherence to exploitative terms of employment staggered me, and I’m rather ashamed I accepted it now. I couldn’t have done this job but for the fact I had a partner with a stable income and borrowed money from my parents to wait for the time the university deigned to pay me. Casualisation, in such ways, creates inequality, excluding people who do not have these sources of support.
My first full-time job in HE, an 18 month fixed-term number in London, was thrown into chaos only a few months after starting by a “restructure”, which resulted in me and one other post-doc being left as the only staff members in a dept previously comprised of around fifteen. It was madness. I remember dancing down the halls singing “I’m outta here!!” when i got my dream job as lecturer at the University of Leicester a few months after this department had disintegrated.
Since I so very much thought I had made it, gotten through the post-PhD period of poorly paid, casualised work to the rewarding career at the end of the tunnel, I spent a very happy few years at the University of Leicester, working 60+ hour weeks, “going above and beyond” and all that. Job security at last! Decent pay! Yes, keeping up with the workload sometimes makes me ill, but I love my job! To the extent that, when I pondered leaving for another university in 2015 – for a better work situation for my husband – I cried at the thought.
Then, since 2016 – in just six years – staff at the University of Leicester have been through three rounds of mass redundancies, dressed up variously as “institutional transformation” or “shaping for excellence”. I haven’t been issued with an at-risk-of-redundancy notice in any of those, but with each round I’ve seen more and more dedicated, inspirational people forced out of the University with increasing callousness. Others, ground down or appalled by the fallout of these “change” processes, just leave. In the context of repeated national disputes, from 2018 to 2022, defending our pensions from decimation, and our pay and working conditions from severe deterioration, these bi-annual local attacks on jobs just feel inhumane. I was heavily involved in the last redundancy process as a Leicester UCU officer trying to prevent job cuts, and the things I witnessed broke whatever last vestige of faith I had that UK universities were worth the sacrifices it takes to work in them.
So, I am pretty much done. Although while I am still here, I will continue to exercise the only recourse I have to address the bonfire of working conditions in higher education, which is to participate in whatever escalation of industrial action our trade union deems necessary. Meanwhile, I implore Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employer Association to *please*, *please* fix this for the future generations of educators & researchers who want to make the world a better place.