Nottingham academic on casual contract: ’I had more rights as a binman’

The Guardian | 16 November 2016 | by Aditya Chakrabortty
Friday 3 February 2017
by  antonin

More than half of academics in the UK are on an insecure contract. Here, two lecturers speak of their struggle to make ends meet

The way Greg tells it, it was like a trapdoor swinging open beneath him. One day, he was a promising young academic. The next, his fixed-term contract was up, his wife was ill – and barely any money was coming in to cover the mortgage, to pay for the groceries, to keep the entire show on the road. The trapdoor was wide open; now it would take everything he had not to plunge through it.

Greg wanted me to hear his story, but I did not find it easy to sit through. For him, it’s both a warning of what can happen to any academic living on casual contracts – and a source of shame. Hardly any of his colleagues at the University of Nottingham know and this piece will not give his real name or identifying details. “There’s a lot of snobbery in academia,” he says, imagining a faculty drinks and some brogue-wearing professor discovering his background. “That one cutting remark.”

Yet it begins conventionally enough, in the middle of the last decade, with a grant for some more university research about to come through. Except it didn’t. The plans he and his wife had made were suddenly dust. They had always been “tight”, Greg remembers, even paying off some of the mortgage. But as an academic on a casual contract, his only safety net had been a little saving and a lot of ambition – and now the couple’s finances went “from the comfortable to the calamitous”.

In a rush to bring in money, he became what one advert describes as an “outdoor cleaning operative” or, as he calls it, a binman. During his part-time shifts, he had to keep clean an entire out-of-town retail park – from the carpark out front to the bins by the shopfronts to the skips and bushes around the back. It was the beginning of what he calls “the humbling”. His PhD counted for nothing; what others saw were his metal litter-picker, and his outfit.

A few months earlier, he had been writing scholarly papers. Now he was picking up used sanitary pads. Shoppers would see him sweeping away fag-ends and lob theirs right by him to collect. Strangers would call him “scum”.

It was humiliation, on starvation wages. He would crawl into supermarket skips for food to take home, keep his eyes peeled for dropped coins. Sometimes he would get caught. Once he tried over and again to pick up a 50-pence piece. Looking up, he saw a cluster of workers watching: they had superglued it to the ground. Now they were laughing. Then they chucked coppers at him.

These memories Greg calls his “scars”. They are not the only things that stay with him. In one email, he told me: “I am still obsessed with money because I once had to shovel shit to earn it.” He didn’t mean it as a figure of speech.

Over time, he took on more work: one day of teaching at Nottingham and another at a rival university. These were casual contracts: short-term, and paying him only by the hour. As such, they offered more experience than income. So he also did some gardening and, where possible, wrote for a local newspaper.

He was pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week. And he was still only making £22,000 to £23,000 a year before tax – below the national average.

What’s exceptional about Greg’s story isn’t that he found himself in a precarious position – it’s how far he went to escape it. As the Guardian reports as part of a series on a new wave of workers in insecure positions, more than half of all academics in the UK are on some kind of casual contract. According to the latest official figures, 45% of all Nottingham staff either teaching students or teaching and researching count as casual labour. The vast majority of those are on “atypical” contracts. Like Greg, they may be paid by the hour to teach fee-paying undergraduates and mark their essays and exams.

It can be gruelling and insecure work. Before talking to Greg, I met Steven Parfitt. After five years of teaching history to undergraduates, he has still not got a permanent contract – despite excellent student feedback and a string of academic publications. A labour historian, he is in effect a 21st-century pieceworker, cobbling together casual jobs from different universities across the east Midlands. This semester, he will be teaching at Nottingham, Loughborough and Derby. “I sometimes spend more time on a train than I do teaching,” he says. Then there’s all the research he must do to have a hope of some day landing a permanent position.

For all this he earns less than £10,000 a year. In five years he has not had a single above-inflation pay rise. During the long summer holidays, when there is no teaching or marking to be had, he relies on his partner for income. He holds out no hope of buying a home or of starting a family. At 31, many of the rites of passage of adulthood are off-limits.

Originally from Auckland, Parfitt once worked as a sorter for the New Zealand postal services. That was years back, yet it paid “comfortably more” than he earns now.

Tell Greg this and he nods: “I had more rights as a litter-picker than I had as a lecturer on fixed contracts. Because at least I got holidays as a litter-picker.” What marks him out are two things. First, he had no one to turn to for extra funds. His wife was too ill to earn much and his parents were also hard up. Despite that, he wanted to cling on to his threadbare middle-class lifestyle: the house, the car, the TV. Most of all, “I craved security. I had to make sure I wouldn’t be cast further down.”

So he would “wake like a frightened rabbit” at 2.45am and get into work for about 3.30am. In the dark and cold and wet, he would clean the retail park. Just before the shoppers came, he would go home, run a bath and fall asleep there. He would wake up with a shiver when the water went cold.

“That was the signal to get in a suit, get in my car and get to Nottingham.” He would park up, catnap in the car for another 20 minutes – then begin a day’s teaching. He talks about it like an actor putting on face paint and striding onstage. “You were putting on someone else who was bright and cheery and engaging. Never any looking back.”

In a timetable that allowed him almost no time to himself, he had one personal ritual. On the mornings he drove up the hill into Nottingham’s beautiful campus, he would put on What I Do by Alan Jackson and sing along. “Corny country and western,” he tells me.

Afterwards, I had a listen. It’s a simple lyric about holding on to one’s dreams that begins: “I’ve been a waiter, a roofer, a clerk / I’ve shovelled manure till my pride hurt.” It ends: “So I count my blessings when I step up to sing / Cause there are so many people who would give anything / To do what I do.”

Neither of Greg’s parents went to university, and now he was doing the most menial jobs to pay for an academic career. For someone who even now doesn’t feel like he belongs in “snobbish” higher education, it must have been so tempting to give up on his dreams and get something steadier. That song reminded him “how privileged I am to have managed to get a job here. To get my foot in the door.”

Besides, there were “a hundred talented people” with PhDs and publications who could take his place. “You’re so fearful.”

Greg is proud of his university, Nottingham. It is one of the biggest and most prestigious in Britain. It is expanding fast – into China, Malaysia and academy schools. School visitors on open days are shown a new £40m sports centre, complete with a 200-machine “fitness suite”. Nearby is a swanky hotel, also built by the university. Last year, the vice-chancellor, Sir David Greenaway, received a total pay and pension package of £381,000.

Last year, this charitable enterprise made a surplus of £25m. In 2014, it also racked up a £25m surplus. Looking at all these millions, critics of the university’s vast “reserve army” of academic labour argue that it could afford to turn many of those contract positions into permanent jobs.

Instead, it gives UK undergraduates paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees (and thousands more in living costs) teachers who may not even be earning that much. Just like Greg or Parfitt, they may be juggling different classes on entirely different courses at universities hundreds of miles apart. There is some evidence to suggest that the low pay and insecure employment of the academics is affecting the education for which students are paying so much.

I have seen sections of a recent private survey of Nottingham teaching staff on casual contracts, undertaken by the local branch of the University and College Union. Like Greg, many of the respondents stress that they give their best, however much it costs. One comment reads: “Either you stick to the hours you are contracted to work and provide substandard teaching for your students, or you put in extra hours, effectively reduce your hourly rate of pay, and try to be good at your job.”

But others admit they cannot perform as well as they would like. “The lack of value that I feel towards me is passed on in my feelings towards the students’ education,” writes one. “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,” says another. A third describes being “definitely much less inclined to go the extra mile in terms of preparing for a class”.

I asked the University of Nottingham how its use of casual labour affected both teachers and students. It issued a statement that reads in part: “In order for Nottingham to succeed in a globally competitive environment, it is essential that we retain the ability to operate with part of our workforce in a flexible mode to enable us to adjust and respond to changes in demand.” Like the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, it also argues that, measured by hours worked, casual academic staff are far outnumbered by full-timers. But the comparison is only superficially revealing: if a casual teaches for one day a week, he or she only counts as about one-fifth of a full timer. The whole frustration for people like Greg and Parfitt is that they can’t get full-time jobs.

Trying to make an impossible situation possible, Greg finally broke down. After two years on five jobs, he fell seriously ill. He quit the litter-picking and, years later, he still won’t shop in that retail park. The teaching he carried on in a state of “permanent exhaustion”. The stress and worry also contributed to the end of his marriage. “I would shout a lot and I was angry.”

Then, after over a decade at Nottingham, it offered him a permanent position. “You’re meant to feel grateful you’ve escaped,” he says. “Then you think: can I ease off a little bit now? Just a little bit?”

Read on The Guardian

Credit photo: The grounds of the University of Nottingham. Photograph: Alamy

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