Casualisation killing higher education – Capitalism to blame!

“I have to sublet my apartment during the summer and live with my mother – at 43. I have put off having a family…The situation is obscene.” These are not words overheard on the dole queue, nor the hardships of a minimum-wage check-out attendant. This is the situation of a lecturer and researcher with two decades of experience in her field: the kind of person whom, at a time of capitalist upswing, would have been the envy of the suburban bourgeoisie. Like so many ‘white-collar workers,’ from junior doctors to civil servants, the crisis of capitalism has shunted Noura Wedell into the ranks of the exploited masses.

Wendell, who lecturers at the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design, ekes a piecemeal existence out of non-permanent contracts, “scrabbling around” for any teaching work she can find. The rate of casualisation in the American higher education sector has reached insane proportions, with 76% of the total faculty workforce occupying fixed-term posts for as little as three month stretches.

Britain is not very far behind. In the United Kingdom, higher education is the most-casualised sector outside of medicine. According to The Higher Education Statistics Authority, a third of the academic workforce is employed on non-permanent contracts, but research by the University and College Union (UCU) suggests that, when you factor in “time limited rather than permanent” employment, the figure is closer to 60% or around 21,000 members of university staff.

The foundations for the present crisis in higher education are long-standing. In the 1980s, Thatcher’s government oversaw job cuts that decimated the sector. During the 1990s, a combination of the abolition of the divide between universities and polytechnics and New Labour policies intended to “broaden participation” increased the number of students at university without upping the number of full-time academics to teach them, resulting in casual or ‘temporary’ workers being called in to make up the teaching hours. The Coalition Government’s decision to lift the cap on student intake put this trend on steroids, resulting in vast student cohorts, demanding even more casual labour.

For many aspiring academics, working life as a part-time university employee is drear and demoralising, characterised by a lack of financial security, exploitation, disrespect and an utter paucity of opportunities for career progression. A report published by UCU found that 33.7% of 1,800 university staff surveyed barely made rent or mortgage payments, 35.5% struggled with household bills and 17% are having trouble affording food.

Rates of pay for causal academic workers are also wildly-variable. An investigation last year by Times Higher Education in 2014 revealed that, of 50 institutions investigated more than 20 paid a minimum rate of £15 an hour or less, while others offered over £40. This might not seem like a terrible deal to workers on a minimum wage, but many universities limit the number of hours that non-permanent members of staff are allowed to claim.

For instance, King’s College London sets a cap of six working hours a week for ‘Graduate Teaching Assistants’ (postgraduates who teach classes alongside their studies). To put that in context, GTAs covering a bare minimum of one module are expected to attend a lecture, read and annotate a book (sometimes two), plan and conduct a lesson of up to 20 students and complete any marking, all in six hours, every single week. This also includes any contact time with students to discuss essays and provide face to face feedback.

In effect, this presents GTAs at King’s with two options: do a slapdash job, jeopardising the education of their students in the process, or work for free. According to a survey carried out by the Fair Pay for GTAs campaign at King’s, which contacted over 400 current and former student teachers at the university, the overwhelming majority opt for the latter, with 96% claiming to work beyond their contracted hours. Not only do GTAs have no desire to see students’ education suffer, but teaching experience is essential to attaining a full-time post in the future.

Pay is not even consistent within the same institution, with some departments offered more favourable deals than others (an illegal practice, incidentally). In a new contract offered by management in response to complaints from GTAs at King’s, it was stated that certain departments can discretionally request higher pay for their GTAs on the basis of “market uplift,” which means the amount of money their work brings to the college (this must also be ratified by the Vice-Principal). As a result, GTAs in the law department, who perform lucrative (though no more demanding) tasks relating to big cases command wages over three times greater than GTAs in English.

You would assume that a high-paid career in academia served as justification for all this meagre living. Unfortunately, job creation in higher education has flat-lined, with many qualified postgraduates forced to make do with a ‘patchwork of incomes’ made up of teaching, grants and temporary postdoctoral appointments for 10 years or more. A Guardian article from 2015 cited one individual working a part-time clerical post at Leeds University, a zero-hours clerical job at Durham and a non-permanent teaching job at Leeds just to make ends meet, eight years after attaining her PhD.

Universities’ increased reliance on casual labour is often justified in terms of ‘flexibility.’ The Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association defended non-permanent contracts as reflecting “genuinely unpredictable work,” compounded by a swelling student body that makes it impossible for full-time staff to cover all the required teaching. GTAs are reminded that academic life is characterised by working beyond one’s contracted hours and a bit of give and take on both sides is part and parcel of the profession.

This condescending rhetoric – all too familiar to junior academics – is particularly galling given the ludicrous salaries enjoyed by senior management. The situation today is unprecedented, with more students than ever before resulting in rampant casualisation across the sector, which concomitantly presses down the wages of full-time members of staff. Meanwhile, Vice-Chancellors reward themselves with £600,000 annual incomes, all while complaining that budgets do not permit a better deal for the academic workers who perform the essential task of educating new layers the workforce.

For all their blather, university management understand the situation perfectly: the academic market is intensely competitive, making teaching experience more essential than ever and budding scholars ought to be grateful for a chance to develop their teaching chops: payment of any kind is a luxury.  Bosses at King’s have even taken to calling GTAs ‘apprentices,’ despite the fact that they receive no paid training and cover more than half of the teaching hours in some departments. Edward Bailey, a ranking member of the UCU who led a national day of action against casualisation last year, puts it starkly: “There is a feeling that universities are calling all the shots and [GTAs] should be grateful just to have a job, but these places shouldn’t be sausage factories.”

This untenable situation is beginning to come to a head. Student fees have already skyrocketed and are set to shoot even higher under George Osbourne’s new ‘Teaching Excellent Framework’ (TEF), which will allow universities that demonstrate ‘excellence in teaching’ to raise their fees indefinitely in line with inflation. Given the cost of entry, many students now demand increased contact hours and some request to be taught by senior staff rather than part-timers.

TEF follows on from the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF), which assesses universities on the quality of their research. The introduction of REF resulted in a slump in teaching standards as publication and funding grabs became priority (with many academics losing their jobs for failing to get their work out quickly enough). With TEF on the way, university bosses are haphazardly vacillating in the other direction, pulling in more students and demanding additional contact time without offering more full-time lecturing posts or better rates of pay.

Under the whip of this virulent exploitation, a concerted fightback is beginning to develop. The Fractionals for Fair Pay (FFFP) campaign was launched in SOAS in response to an internal survey that found that more than half the hours worked by casual workers at the university went unpaid. The aforementioned Fair Pay for GTAs campaign underway at King’s has already secured a formal negotiation with management, with one of its members being elected to the executive committee of the local branch of the UCU. The union has also launched a new campaign against casualisation, concurrent with a national, grassroots movement, FACE (‘Fighting Against Casualisation in Education’).

As Marxists, we understand that it is the international crisis of capitalism that prevents universities from providing sufficient resources for academic staff to do their jobs, which necessitates casual labour. The consequences of this systemic failure will be a lowering of teaching standards, reduced accessibility and an ultimately undereducated populace as a smaller cross-section of wealthy students benefit from a diminished service. In campaigns such as those at SOAS and KCL we are beginning to see the tremors of revolutionary developments in a system creaking under the weight of its own contradictions.

by Joe Attard, KCL Marxist Society