One of the most highly skilled and prestigious professions in Britain, university teaching, is now dominated by zero-hours contracts, temp agencies and other forms of precarious work, the Guardian can reveal.
New analysis reveals that it is the richest Russell Group institutions that rely most heavily on insecure academic workers. The Guardian investigation has led trade unionists to accuse vice-chancellors of “importing the Sports Direct model” into British universities. It has also prompted the National Union of Students to warn that low-paid and overstressed tutors may not be providing quality education to undergraduates paying tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.
Academics teaching or doing research in British universities will typically have spent years earning doctorates or other qualifications, yet more than half of them – 53% – manage on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract. They range from short-term contracts that typically elapse within nine months, to those paid by the hour to give classes or mark essays and exams.
Among junior academics – those most likely to be doing frontline teaching – three-quarters are on these kinds of precarious contracts. It is highly likely that the majority of undergraduates are paying many thousands of pounds to be taught by casual workers.
The investigation is part of a series of articles published in the Guardian this week about the growing numbers of people in Britain who find themselves in precarious work. The figures come from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and have been analysed by the University and College Union (UCU). They show that within the Russell Group, the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick have the largest proportion of frontline teaching staff on short-term or zero-hours and other flexible contracts. At Birmingham, 70% of teaching staff are on insecure contracts, while at Warwick it is 68%. Yet Birmingham has begun a vast £500m building project, including a new sports centre costing £55m and student housing.
Percentage of teaching and teaching-and-research staff on temporary or ’atypical’ contracts
The analysis suggests that as the university sector charges higher student fees and faces further competition, many institutions are getting into speculative building and expansion of their business models, even while many of their frontline teaching staff are struggling to get by. It also raises the prospect of a two-tier academic workforce, with those at the bottom living hand to mouth and unable to pursue research, while those at the top are very well paid. The vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, Sir David Eastwood, last year received a pay and performance package of £416,000 – nearly three times the prime minister’s salary.
One-year and two-year contracts are an inevitable part of grant-funded research. But these figures show temporary and zero-hours contracts are now widespread among those teaching undergraduates. University managers typically argue that such flexible contracts allow young academics to gain valuable experience. But in interviews with the Guardian, academics have disputed that argument from their own experience, including:
- A 44-year-old politics lecturer working at three different institutions at once but still earning only just over £6,000 a year, relying on benefits to top up his poverty pay.
- A 32-year-old linguistics lecturer who has experienced “serious mental health issues” and says “unstable work without a network of colleagues and without any security is proving really difficult”.
- A 49-year-old English lecturer who says: “I earn such a pathetic amount. I feel quite humiliated.”
Academics rarely speak out publicly against their precarious working arrangements for fear of being punished by losing hours. Some have spoken to the Guardian using a pseudonym while others have said they have “nothing left to lose”.
Academics on insecure contracts form “a reserve army of precarious and exploited labour”, claimed Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU. “Many universities are hacking up teaching jobs into ever smaller bits and shoving people on to the worst contract they can get away with. This is the Sports Direct model imported into our universities.”
The Guardian has seen sections of a private survey of academics on casual contracts at the University of Nottingham, one of the largest and most renowned institutions in the country. The comments include:
- “The lack of value that I feel towards me is passed on in my feelings towards the students’ education.”
- “I have heard people complaining about the fact that they are paid 10 minutes to correct one exam, therefore they will use only 10 minutes to read them.”
- “I am definitely much less inclined to go the extra mile in terms of preparing for a class.”
The NUS warned of the impact this could have on student learning. “When academic staff are demoralised and forced to cope with low pay and insecurity, the knock-on effect on students is significant,“ said Sorana Vieru, a vice-president at the union. “Many students are now taking on unprecedented levels of debt to go to university. They deserve good quality teaching and anything that damages that is deeply unjust.”
Universities are independent charities, but the Department for Business has told the Guardian that conditions for academics will form part of the independent review of workers’ rights to be conducted for the government by Tony Blair’s former head of policy, Matthew Taylor.
At a few universities such as Edinburgh, the use of zero-hours contracts has caused huge controversy and even led to managers pledging to scrap them. Yet the figures show that Edinburgh has shifted many of its teaching staff on to other kinds of insecure contract.
But the lobby group for academic employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, argued: “It is essential that universities retain the ability to operate with part of their workforce in a flexible mode to enable them to respond to changes in demand. The variability in student enrolments on programmes, and features of academic life such as sabbaticals and research leave for permanent staff, mean that fixed-term opportunities to teach, generally for a year or a semester, are made available.”
The University of Birmingham said the figures, from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, were “extremely misleading”. It added in a statement: “While the university recognises that a significant number of individuals engaged in teaching are not on standard contracts, they provide only a small fraction of teaching (about 7%), because most of them are engaged for a small fraction of a full-time equivalent post.
“Many of the people in this category are expert visiting lecturers, from commerce, industry and the professions, who provide practical support and insight to our students based on their own experience; and others are our own research students, who communicate their enthusiasm for scientific endeavour to undergraduate students through their work as laboratory demonstrators or tutorial assistants, under the supervision of academic staff. We believe these individuals enhance the learning experiences of our students.”
by Aditya Chakrabortty and Sally Weal