Met with favour

Academia does not always provide stable employment, but a union-led campaign has persuaded one northern institution to do away with zero-hours contracts, hourly pay and other precarious conditions

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Manchester’s Oxford Road has transformed almost beyond recognition over the past decade, with multi-billion pound investment remodelling the city’s education corridor. But one of the area’s most significant changes has taken place quietly, behind closed doors.

“Colleagues were working in coffee shops, then going to teach the students they just served drinks.”

2022-2023 will be the first full academic year Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) delivers courses via a staff base made up almost entirely of academics in permanent posts. After lengthy negotiations with the institution’s University and College Union (UCU) branch, an agreement has been reached to end thousands of insecure teaching contracts, moving regular casual employees into stable roles.

One of just two higher education providers in the country to do this – the other being the Open University (OU), effective as of August – this process, which started in 2018, finished without strike action or compulsory redundancies among union members. Job losses overall have not been made public but are reported to be in single digits. And 176 new permanent roles have been created.

Casual academic contracts are supposed to help cover leave and illness, allow industry professionals to teach modules, and give masters and PhD students experience delivering lectures, seminars and marking. MMU still has provision for this, but its new rules prevent casual staff being used for more than 12 weeks in the same role without an offer of permanent employment. In the past, and at other institutions, this wasn’t the case, and the prevalence of casualisation is striking.

Union figures show 41 per cent of all UK teaching-only academics are employed on an hourly-paid basis, 44 per cent on fixed term contracts, and – despite significant criticism – 5 per cent work on zero hours terms. Huge differences exist in terms of how many staff on each campus are employed in these ways, but the practice is a reality from Oxford University to the Russell Group and former polytechnics.

Far from being the stable employment many would imagine it to be, academia is as precarious as many other sectors. Insecure contracts offer little to no holiday or sick leave, and come with wild variations in paid hours from term to term.

Many academics need additional employment. Others rely on family for support – an obstacle stopping those from less privileged backgrounds pursuing academic careers. Some brave the benefits system. Some research suggests casualisation reduces student satisfaction.

“We had academics coming into the profession with doctorates, the highest level of qualification you can get, who could not afford their rent,” says Julie Wilkinson, lecturer at MMU and the university’s UCU branch secretary, who led the anti-casualisation drive that triggered the MMU’s bold decision to move staff into permanent roles.

“Colleagues on casual contracts were working in coffee shops, finishing the shift, then going to teach the students they just served drinks. And these are people working at the highest level of their subject. Some were finding jobs in warehouses to make ends meet.”

According to UCU research, 69 per cent of casual university staff report their contracts as either stressful or very stressful, 79 per cent claim damage to mental health, and a 2015 study suggested more than two-fifths were struggling to pay basic household bills.

“This is the situation across the sector,” says Wilkinson. “Highly qualified people are paid below the union minimum rate for a job, which would be split up and divided based on function. So a lecturer was given one rate for teaching and another for marking work – less than permanent staff members. But those marks still have to stand up.”

Critics say higher education institutions that use casualisation as a means to keep costs down are being short-sighted, because of its detrimental impact on overall value for money – in terms of students getting regular contact with the best academics and also by constructing a glass ceiling on research output, through which only permanent staff or those who can afford it are allowed to pass.

Wilkinson says staff on secure contracts became so outraged they asked the UCU branch to prioritise ending the casual system.

“It took a lot of discussion, a lot of arguing, meeting after meeting after meeting, members signing letters, writing to the vice-chancellor supporting us, voting on it. Then management finally agreed that these practices had to change fundamentally and permanently, so we got more people into permanent contracts in the university, and this became the standard for employment.”

Wilkinson is keen to point out that casual academic staff are excellent at delivering education to students, and teaching quality is not the issue. Instead, burn-out leading to high staff turnover is a major cause for concern, and creates inconsistency for students on courses. Nor do most casual contracts pay academics to do research – the other traditional part of their job.

“There were thousands of these contracts,” says Wilkinson. “Just working out where the contracts actually were took ages. We knew heads of department were recruiting the same people for four or five contracts per term.”

MMU’s initial response was to suggest issuing all staff on casual contracts with redundancy notices while individual offers were finalised. Unsurprisingly, this met stiff opposition and was scrapped. Then the university proposed wages for new permanent contracts below UCU minimum rates. At the time of writing, no deal has been formalised on this, but in practice salaries have so far matched or bettered that baseline and negotiations are ongoing. Whether other universities are willing to follow the move by MMU and the OU remains to be seen.

One MMU fine art lecturer, who asked to remain anonymous, says his move to a permanent contract in March after six years as a casual has allowed time to re-engage with non-teaching academic work, contributing to the advancement of the subject and bolstering the university’s reputation for developing theories and ideas.

“I think that’s really positive,” he says. “It was really difficult kind of being a researcher but not being supported by the institution. We missed out as hourly paid academics, but I think the institution also missed out by not having all that research under it.

“Not only does it make the research culture richer, it makes the teaching culture richer, because it’s drawing voices from places that perhaps might have struggled to get a foothold due to casual terms. So I think, as difficult as it has been, it could end up being a really useful, very progressive move by MMU to get these different types of voices represented within both research and teaching.

“Now I’m permanent I’ve been slowly drawn into the research culture, and I think it’s going to improve my research and it’s going to contribute something to the institution.”

MMU did not respond to specific questions from Big Issue North but a spokesperson said it continues to see high value in combining teaching input from industry experts working on a casual basis, and permanent university staff, and remains steadfast in its view that hourly-paid work builds employability among postgraduates who need to build up teaching experience.

“It was apparent at Manchester Metropolitan that there was a range of local arrangements which had built up over the years, resulting in a lack of consistency around the contractual arrangements for hourly paid staff,” the spokesperson said. “Therefore, following discussions with the UCU, we undertook a project aimed at providing secure terms and conditions of employment for colleagues where appropriate, and reducing the use of teaching-related hourly paid contracts.

“Our objective was to ensure we have a stable and engaged workforce to deliver the best possible student experience.”

‘A lesson in endurance and resilience’

Dr Eleanor Beal, lecturer in contemporary literature at MMU’s English department, believes casualisation disproportionately impacts women, who risk losing any accrued employment rights if they go on maternity leave.

UCU data on a gender split for fixed-term contracts only shows a minor difference – 35 per cent women compared to 32 per cent men. Minority groups also made up a slightly higher proportion, with 12 per cent of white academics on hourly-paid contracts compared with 19 per cent of Black academics. The numbers may be marginal yet they are nevertheless problematic, as is any perception that prejudice exists.

Beal was given a permanent contract in February, after eight years of casual work at the university in Manchester.

“Before I was basically working three jobs around six days a week, all of which were ad hoc, and was struggling to scrape together more than £15,000 per year,”  she says, describing casual academic work as “a lesson in endurance and resilience”.

“Now, to be paid a fair salary and have a pension is so much better. Apart from a very small personal pension, I’m 41 years old and have only really just started my pension plan. But at least I have one now.

“Planning for the future was impossible even a few weeks ahead when working casual contracts, because you never knew what your working life was going to look like from term to term, or even month to month.”

Since getting a permanent role she has secured a mortgage with her partner. “Before this, we moved from Manchester to Leeds and started looking at rentals. I realised if it weren’t for my husband I would have needed a guarantor just to get a tenancy, because of the ad hoc nature of my work and low overall income.”

Photo: Part of the MMU campus (Shutterstock)

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