University lecturers on the breadline: is the UK following in America’s footsteps?
University lecturers on the breadline: is the UK following in America’s footsteps?
Wedell, one of the rapidly expanding army of academics across the US struggling to survive on insecure low-paid contracts, where qualified professionals can earn as little as $15,000 (about £9,800) a year, says the situation is becoming untenable.
“The thing is the real economic hardship of this,” says Wedell, who lectures at the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design. Her annual wages from non-permanent contracts in the past few years have oscillated between $21,000 and $24,000 depending on how many classes she’s been given to teach. “Scrabbling around” for non-academic work to supplement her income has been essential. “I have to sublet my apartment during the summer and live with my mother – at 43. I have put off having a family because of this. The situation is obscene.”
Wedell says the financial and psychological strain has got to many, as the US higher education (HE) jobs market has shifted from full-time, tenured posts towards insecure contracted work. “I go to school via an underpass which is a homeless encampment. The real, present fear is that this is awaiting me. I know I have a support system … but that reality is close. Everyone is scared.”
Once upon a time a career in HE in the US was a bonafide route into a secure, middle-class job. Now, though, not only is the proportion of staff on insecure contracts at an all-time high, it is commonplace for “adjunct” or “contingent” faculty (typically part-timers or casual contracted staff, who often don’t know if they’ll be hired from one semester to the next) to be in or on the cusp of poverty.
According to the American Federation of Teachers, the largest HE union, 76% of the total faculty workforce is now in non-permanent posts and 70% of these are part-time. Many teach at multiple institutions to generate income. The AFT calculates that the median pay per course per semester for such staff is around $2,700, meaning that an experienced professional teaching three courses a semester might earn only $24,300 a year.
This rising casualisation and spread of poverty-line pay in US higher education has been a trend for many years, made worse as institutions have attempted to cut costs following the 2008 financial crisis. However, it has become so extreme lately that reports of academics resorting to “public assistance” such as food stamps to get by have been coming thick and fast. One recent analysis by the University of California–Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education found that 7% of families of part-time faculty at US colleges were in receipt of food stamps, usually the preserve of the poorest in society.
As a result of such developments a wave of protests has been sparked at numerous campuses, with a national week of action organised by the AFT at the end of last month.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the US situation is being watched closely by the swelling ranks of casual staff in British higher education. Trade unions and activists involved in fledgling campus grassroots groups, such as Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (Face), are concerned that academics in Britain could end up like their counterparts in the US, reliant on state assistance to get by. The group is holding a conference in London on 21 November.
That British HE could come to resemble that in the US, with an inflating casual staff that becomes progressively less able to survive on earnings, is not as outlandish as it might sound. While last week vice-chancellors’ pay was reported as “out of control”, with several said to be earning more than £600,000, many academics in Britain are angry at what they say are exploitative, insecure contracts with deteriorating pay and terms, including zero-hours contracts.
Jane Adams* (she didn’t want to be identified in case it threatened her already insecure job) lectures at a university in London on an hourly contract. “There are thousands of lecturers like me at ‘post-92’ universities who should be on permanent contracts, who’ve done 10, 11, sometimes 15 years of full-time work and yet are paid on an hourly basis,” she says. “You have no security so you can’t even get a mortgage, even if you can survive on the money.
“This is across the sector,” she adds. “Probably a third of our staff – and I’m one – have terribly little notice of what [classes] they’re going to teach. You don’t get any pay over the summer. You come back in September and [only then] are you told how many hours you’ve got. Because you are getting very few hours pay for the actual work you do, you end up working for something like the minimum wage. You can’t survive.”
It’s not only the financial pressure and uncertainty that are affecting thousands of casual staff, says Adams. There is psychological fallout too due to stress. “People are suffering anxiety and depression. Many are terrified to say anything.”
A number of high-profile disputes over the past couple of years have propelled casualisation and low pay into public view. At the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London, casual staff have been battling with management over the use of “fractional” contracts (typically 10-month contracts with no guarantee of hours or re-employment).
James Eastwood, who has been active in the campaign Fractionals for Fair Pay at Soas, has been a graduate teaching assistant for three years. He says that while contracts differ from one institution to the next, there are systemic problems with this “precarious” employment including overwork and pay.
“I teach 10 hours a week at two different institutions and over 10 months I’ll take home about £12,000 from that.” He supplements his income from other sources. “This is not livable in a capital city. It’s extremely challenging.” Eastwood and others campaigning for improved contracts are concerned that unless casualisation is stopped, low pay and insecurity will become the norm.
Xanthe Whittaker, like Eastwood, is a young academic juggling multiple contracts while she completes her PhD. Her experience of balancing research and teaching while trying to make ends meet is a common one. “I work six or seven days a week including research. Sometimes I work 16-hour days,” she says. “I feel guilty about spending money on food, that’s how low my income is. I get to the end of the month and I can’t get the tube because I can’t afford it.”
Jonathan White, a spokesman for the University and College Union (UCU), which is holding a national day of action on Thursday to highlight the problem, says it’s a “scandal” that insecure contracts have proliferated. “You can’t shine a light too brightly,” he says. The Higher Education Statistics Authority has compiled data on non-permanent “atypical” contracts, but White says the true scale of casualisation has yet to be calculated.
When it comes to “teaching-only” staff in HE, the UCU’s estimates put the proportion on “time limited rather than permanent” contracts at 60%, and its freedom of information request showed more than 21,000 university teaching staff on zero-hours arrangements.
Meanwhile, a UCU report earlier this year, Making Ends Meet, described “the harsh” financial reality for many casual HE academic workers. In a survey the union found that a significant proportion of HE staff on some form of casual contract had trouble making ends meet. More than a third (33.7%) of the 1,800 university academics who responded said they struggled to pay their rent or mortgage, while 35.5% had difficulty paying household bills. Seventeen percent even had problems affording food.
The reasons why casualisation has taken hold are complex, White says, but he says one of the main drivers is pressures to keep staff costs down in a climate where government is exerting ever greater pressure to save money.
The Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association staunchly defends the use of hourly paid and casual working arrangements, pointing out that permanent contracts do not suit everyone and that universities need some flexibility. “HE institutions use ‘hours to be notified’ casual contracts for genuinely unpredictable work,” a spokesman says. “They cannot simply provide full-time or open-ended employment to everyone who wants it; like all employers, they will always have variable and temporary needs.” He said employers have been working with trade unions on the nature of casual employment, publishing a working group report earlier this year.
A Face spokesman responded that even if it does suit some people to not have permanent contracts, that doesn’t take away from the hardship and insecurity faced by thousands of others. “Poor pay and insecurity are increasingly normal for a sizeable part of the higher education workforce. It’s hard to start a family, make a home, and even just to get by when you’re paid only in term time, or on a series of short-term contracts. We need secure, full-time employment year round.”