Counting the costs of casualisation culture at Queen Mary

When we take to the picket line on Thursday, we strengthen a broad fight for our pensions and against our declining real pay. This intersects with growing casualisation, gender and race pay gaps, and crushing workloads across the sector.

The UCU’s report ‘Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education’ (June 2019) demonstrated the scale of precarity across our HE sector:

  • 70% of the 49,000 researchers are on fixed-term contracts, with many more on nominally open-ended contracts but with fixed redundancy dates tied to grant periods.
  • 37,000 teaching staff are on fixed-term contracts, the majority of which are hourly paid.  
  • 71,000 teaching staff are employed as ‘atypical academics.’ Atypical contracts are intended for short (less than 4 weeks) or one-off tasks.
  • UCU estimates that this ‘reserve army’ of academics delivers 25-30% of teaching in many universities. 

Our analysis of the current workload model the School of Business and Management, one of QMUL’s largest schools, reveals that casualised academic labour clearly fuels the engine of undergraduate education. Nearly a quarter of undergraduate lectures and nearly three-quarters of undergraduate seminars, where students get the most individuals support, are taught by teaching associates or teaching fellows. See attached PDF fuller analysis.

Some university leaders seek to explain away casualised labour as mainly the training ground for PhD students. The scale of the problem belies this explanation, but even where PhD students fill these roles, they deserve dignity and respect for their skilled service to the sector.

Casualised academic labour should not be seen as a rite of passage or as a transient product of student recruitment cycles. It has become the permanent business model.

Across QMUL, in 2018/19, for teaching-only staff, we have at least:

  • 571 Demonstrators, whose total work that is not subject to timesheets or one off-payments is only 0.46 full-time equivalent. This means that the guaranteed, regular pay for this group is equivalent to less than half a person – with nearly all facing the sharpest end of precarity. Unsurprisingly, 97% of demonstrator contracts are fixed-term or temporary. 
  • 229 Teaching Associates, whose jobs are so fragmented that when added together they only total 80 full-time equivalent employees. Again 98% of TA contracts are fixed-term or temporary.
  • 180 Teaching Fellows, doing the work of at least 101 full-time equivalent employees – this substantial cohort of staff are carrying the burden of teaching for many departments and their combined number is larger than the academic staff of many departments at QMUL. Still 87% of TF contracts are fixed-term or temporary.

The UCU’s ‘Counting the costs’ report also revealed that casualised staff say the lack of security is damaging their mental and physical health, while holding down multiple jobs and struggling to pay bills. QMUCU’s 2018/19 survey of non-permanent staff revealed a similar story here. Nearly two-thirds of our respondents reported having been asked to begin work at QMUL without a contract agreed, whilst more than one-third reported having been paid at least one month late.

Knowing what you will be paid for work before you begin it and being paid on-time are pretty basic requests that good employers ought to be able to honour. Yet, the experience of casualised staff at QM indicates that even these most basic of employment rights cannot be taken for granted. These experiences are not isolated administrative errors but are reflective of management priorities and often leave our precarious colleagues unable to make ends meet. Our colleagues described the human toll of these priorities:

  • The main problem is uncertainty. Both about how much of the work done will be paid in the next payroll, or whether I will have to reclaim unpaid work to HR (which has already happened several times in these 2 years).”
  • “I am a highly educated and experienced adult, but a dependent: unqualified, for example, to be responsible for paying rent for my home–like a child.”
  • “The feeling of stress around March/April when I need to find paid work for next year is horrible. Everything feels transitory so I cannot move on with my life, a kind of purgatory.”

Click here to hear directly from one of our own QMUCU members who powerfully shares the overwhelming and insecure nature of being a precarious academic.

The dehumanising effect of casualisation is not a problem of poor practice by isolated managers that can be fixed with training or new HR policies. Rather, because casualised staff are used, in part, to ease the crushing workloads and further the careers of permanent staff, it is a structural issue that we must all fight in solidarity to resolve.

At the national level, our UCU negotiators in the ‘Four Fights’ dispute have argued for a national agreement on casualisation, but have been willing to compromise on a national framework to be implemented with local flexibility. Despite many hours of negotiation since November, our employers have been yet unprepared to agree.

At QMUL, we passed a motion as the UCU branch in November 2019 to develop a local anti-casualisation claim. Subsequent investigation has revealed a number of local concerns, including a lack of fair and transparent teaching allocation, lack of clarity for calculating contractual hours, underpayment for preparation time, and some PhD students being pressured to teach without employment contracts.

There are some PhD students who are required to teach as a condition of their funding from QMUL – PhD GTAs. These GTAs receive the same stipend payment as their QM-funded counterparts who are not required to teach. These GTAs also do the same teaching work that their properly contracted TA colleagues do, without receiving additional pay or the entitlements and rights of employees (national insurance contributions, holiday entitlement, sick pay, etc). We have seen concerning indications that this population may be expanding soon. Poorly remunerated and poorly protected teacher working conditions degrade student learning conditions. We believe that all teaching work at Queen Mary should be consistently paid through proper employment contracts.

Concurrently, our branch committee continues to press QM HR to engage with us to review implementation of the assimilation agreement, which has brought demonstrators, teaching associates, and teaching fellows/associate lecturers onto the QMUL payscale.

Click here to join the QMUCU Anti-Cas Campaign. 

A strong strike in the national disputes will also give us essential leverage to shift the ground through negotiations that will follow from our local anti-casualisation claim. We must stand together on Thursday.

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