This article is more than 7 years old

Precarious work is no longer atypical in academia

Jonathan White gets behind the numbers on casual and precarious employment in universities, and explains why trade unions and employers are struggling to see eye-to-eye on the issue.
This article is more than 7 years old

Jonathan White is Bargaining and Negotiations Official at the University and College Union.

The furore that greeted the recent publication of University and Colleges Union’s (UCU) analysis of data on precarious employment saw the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and several universities set about attempting to trash UCU’s use of the available numbers. In the process, they presented an image of a sector in strenuous denial.

UCEA’s public statement repeated a tired claim that the ‘atypical academics’ counted by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) are “skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses”. In this parallel universe, atypical academics are a reserve army of 75,000 barristers, composers, business gurus and investment bankers turning out en masse to spice up university courses.

Yet UCU’s analysis of the HESA data shows that around 90% of atypical academic teachers are paid at junior lecturer level or below, and 45% are on the very lowest pay points on the scale. In the Russell Group, it’s worse. 69% of atypical academics are paid at teaching assistant or research assistant rates or lower. If this is a reserve army of specialist professional labour, it’s not charging a very good hourly rate.

In reality, as the data suggests, the vast majority of atypical academics are either PhD students doing teaching or hourly-paid teachers on the far side of a doctorate. The number of active professionals doing some teaching on the side is relatively small. Precariousness is rife within all these categories of workers. Casually employed teachers trying to make ends meet post-PhD are an obvious case, but many of the professionals in the creative arts depend on hourly paid teaching to supplement an already precarious living. Equally, the PhD student of today is far more likely to be dependent on teaching to pay rent and bills than in the past. Precariousness comes in many forms.

Universities know all this, which is presumably why they supplemented their argument with a calculation apparently demonstrating that the use of casual contracts is tiny and falling. They achieved this by adding up the full-time equivalence (FTE) of all the atypical contracts to arrive at a small number – 3.2%. This is deeply misleading.

False equivalence

As HESA show, measuring FTE is a very bad way of looking at people with part-time contracts. People employed on very small FTE contracts simply disappear within aggregations of full-time equivalence. In one sense, the universities are only showing is that there are a lot of people on small contracts. But more seriously, you simply can’t measure the work done by thousands of hourly-paid lecturers by calculating their FTE as though they were full-time lecturers. Hourly-paid teachers are contracted for a small number of teaching hours, and their FTE will always look small. Full-time lecturers are contracted to teach, administer and research. One or two hourly-paid lecturers may do the same amount of teaching in a week as a full-time lecturer, but their FTE will be a tiny fraction of this; maybe only one day a week.

This is to say nothing about the systematic underpayment of hourly-paid lecturers relative to the work they do, another reason why universities have been so happy to employ hourly-paid lecturers in such large numbers. Using FTE in this way is simply a way of hiding the amount of work being done by hourly-paid lecturers. Universities who want to be transparent should disclose the proportion of classroom tuition hours being taught by staff on insecure contracts. Few of them seem to want to do that.

Universities who jumped with glee on the fact that HESA issued a statement raising concerns about UCU’s calculations are guilty of sheer hypocrisy. HESA’s statement raises concerns about whether it is possible to make meaningful assessments of staffing resources by adding together totals for fixed-term contract staff and atypical staff, because of the different work patterns involved means the data is collected in a different way. Fixed-term contract ‘full person equivalents’ are collected with a snapshot ‘census’ on 1 December. Atypical academic full person equivalents are collected over the whole reporting period, for the obvious reason that if you collected it on a census date, casual staff would be underreported on a massive scale. It’s worth noting also that the census data methodology is very likely to underreport fixed-term contracts significantly.

Time for transparency

The upshot of this methodological square dance is that there are major issues confronting anyone trying to measure casualisation and precarious work in the higher education sector using HESA data.

UCU’s aim was to provide a sense of scale in relation to the number of people on insecure contracts who are being used to teach in our universities. We stand by our methodology, with all of its limitations, as the best that can be achieved with the existing data. Yet those universities who rushed to press release their support for HESA’s statement have a problem because their own methodology has exactly the same shortcomings highlighted by HESA. They want to ‘have their cake and eat it’, as a government adviser might doodle.

For a sector that likes to boast about its transparency and workforce data, we know precious little about the extent of precarious work in higher education. Hourly-paid staff or those on zero-hours contracts are currently invisible within the HESA staff record, and UCU has always been clear that those people returned by universities as atypical academics only represent a part of the real hourly-paid workforce. The rest are concealed within fixed-term contract data. This at least is one area where it has been possible to get some consensus with employers’ representatives.

There are other bigger problems. Thirty-six universities also think that it’s acceptable not to return any data on their use of atypical contracts at all, and they face no sanction. This includes universities who we know from our 2013 Freedom of Information request use hundreds of hourly-paid and zero-hours contracts, like Sheffield Hallam, City University, and Nottingham Trent. This alone renders UCEA’s historical analysis almost useless, as they are reporting trends on the basis of a dwindling band of institutions. We still know next to nothing about the duration of these contracts.

Most scandalously, universities are not required to report anything that happens inside their subsidiary companies. Coventry University’s fast expanding University College, with its three campuses and hundreds of teaching staff, is entirely off balance sheet. That’s just not acceptable. But there are more than sixty of these subsidiary companies in higher education already, and they are a model that is set to grow. Someone must be tasked with opening these companies up to public view.

Universities have embraced the marketisation of their sector with more or less open arms, but part of the logic of this market is that students will want to know more about the institutions they’re paying for. UCU is a union, and we would rather negotiate than do battle in the press. Yet too many universities have consciously passed up the opportunity to talk. The door is always open to those who want to negotiate.

As for the rest, they need to know that UCU is not going to stop applying pressure. We will continue to point students, staff and the wider world toward the available data on our universities and we will continue to press for greater workforce transparency. This is a real issue, and it can’t be conjured away through acts of methodological sleight of hand. With two inquiries, continued press attention, political pressure from all parties, and ‘students at the heart of the system’, the days when universities could conceal their employment practices are over.

7 responses to “Precarious work is no longer atypical in academia

  1. Nice work. However, you don’t mention the further ‘reserve army’ of post-doctorates who can’t even find temporary hourly-paid teaching work. I am used to getting rejections without interview for even the lowest paid, shortest hours contracts. It’s a demand and supply issue: too many hopeful PhDs chasing dwindling employment opportunities in a funding-starved sector that is increasingly a bastion of neo-liberal microeconomics.

  2. All of Coventry University’s UK-based subsidiary companies’ accounts are audited and published on the University website. You will find the latest available subsidiary companies’ accounts on the same page as annual reports. They are available for free – or you can pay £1 to view the same files held by Companies House. Coventry University is happy to share this information openly.

    Gez Marlow, Assistant Finance Director, Coventry University

    1. Dear Gez, thanks for this, I’m glad you have raised this. I already have the company accounts, and as you will know, they are not quite the same as the kind of transparency I talk about in this article. Coventry University College’s company accounts are the highly abbreviated accounts of a small company. They tell you nothing about staffing numbers, contract types, pay rates, expenditure on staff as a proportion of spending in general, etc etc, In this sense, the enterprise is entirely off balance sheet. Further to this, as you may or may not be aware, I have submitted a Freedom of Information request to Coventry University in regard to these issues at Coventry University College which the University and College have both ignored. Following repeated efforts to follow up with the University, I have raised this issue with the Information Commissioners Office who are looking into it. Perhaps rather than pointing to irrelevant Company Accounts, you could have a look into these extremely serious issues surrounding the lack of transparency and public accountability in the Coventry University Group?

  3. When I was working at University of Sheffield on my [I’ve lost count]th contract, I was asked by the pro-vc for research to write a scoping report on ways of improving research management. I doubt that it was actually read, but as a member of the UCU committee, I was given HR stats about terms of employment. I don’t know how widespread this practice is, but perhaps UCU committees around the country could collect data in this way and send them to HQ to be collated.

    The report may not have been read, but I published the research as Madden, A. D. (2009). Managing for the ideal research environment. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 31(3), 271-282 (

Leave a Reply