Response to The Student

This is written as clarification to an article in The Student, 29 Nov 2016

The below is the comment sent by UCU Edinburgh officers to The Student newspaper, a comment from which quotes were included in their recent article on tutors’ working conditions. UCU Edinburgh committee thought it might be useful to publish the full comment below, including statistics and references.

A note of clarification: The Student article mentions two surveys, one carried out by UCU UK (not UCU Edinburgh) in 2015, and one currently in circulation at the University, the latter carried out by a group of tutors based in the School of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures. The latter survey is carried out both to gauge University of Edinburgh tutors’ view of the cap on working hours for PhD students, and to follow up from the petition letter penned by tutors in the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences earlier this year, as the tutors in question reportedly have not seen enough positive change from the University.

UCU, or the University and College Union in full, is the largest trade union representing university staff and postgraduate students in the UK. We have over 110,000 members across the country, with over 1,500 members here at Edinburgh. We represent casualised (that is to say, people employed on precarious contracts, with limited or no job security) researchers and teaching staff as well as permanent lecturers, and also ‘academic-related’ staff such as librarians and administrators. As a union we believe that higher education should be a public good, and have campaigned for decades against the marketisation of our profession, including campaigning against tuition fees for students and for better working conditions for our members.

The University of Edinburgh is one of the country’s worst offenders when it comes to employing its staff on precarious contracts. UCU has campaigned against the extended and ever-increasing use of hourly contracts for a long time, but at the University of Edinburgh this work was picked up also by major newspapers. Following on work in previous years, including a 2012-2013 survey on the conditions of casualised staff members ( ), in 2013 a Freedom of Information request showed that 23 percent of all staff, and 47 percent of staff in Humanities and Social Sciences, were employed on zero hours contracts ( ), that is to say hourly contracts with no guaranteed minimum hours of work ( ). Despite the University’s promise in 2013 to improve job security for its workers ( ), and despite tutors and demonstrators having issued two petitions (in 2012 ( ) and in 2016 ( ), not much progress has been made. While many staff members previously employed on zero hours contracts have now been moved to ‘guaranteed hours’ contracts (a type of hourly contract stipulating a specific guaranteed number of hours of work for a year), the use of such contracts has not decreased; instead they have been accompanied by an increased use of one-off payments (so-called ‘form 100’) which is an even more precarious way of employing staff.

While employers maintain that insecure contracts are needed to maintain ‘flexibility’, or that hourly paid teaching provides a ‘valuable opportunity’ for PhD students, in reality insecure employment causes anxiety and stress among staff as well as far from ideal learning conditions for students. The move to ‘guaranteed hours’ at Edinburgh should in theory give hourly paid staff an improved job security, but in practice they are very similar to the older zero hours contracts. Some hourly paid staff the union has talked to report not receiving their contracts until the end of term, which means they have no guaranteed hours of work at all and could be fired (or could quit) the next day. Others report being given only a small number of guaranteed hours but then being asked to work above this minimum, which means those extra hours are in-effect on a zero hours contract. Many tutors and lecturers are also employed on very short fixed-term posts, only covering term time, meaning that they have work for twelve weeks at a time (twenty-two weeks of the year), and without a guarantee for continued work. Many of us on casualised contracts do not know how to pay our rents, or where we will be living in a few months in case we have to move to another city or country for work, or – for those daring enough to start a family while in such a precarious working situation – how to feed our children. Many of us work up to five jobs at different workplaces in order to make ends meet. A survey of members in insecure contracts in 2015, carried out by UCU (—the-human-cost-of-casualisation-in-post-secondary-education-May-15/pdf/ucu_makingendsmeet_may15.pdf ), revealed significant numbers of them struggling to get by:

  • 40% said that they earned under £1000 per month.
  • One in seven (14%) earned less than £500 per month, which places them below the Lower Earnings Limit for National Insurance Contributions.
  • 17% said that they struggled to pay for food.
  • One third (34%) said that they struggle to pay rent or mortgage repayments
  • 36% said that they struggled to pay household bills like fuel, electricity, water and repairs

One respondent states: ‘I especially dread the summer and Easter periods as I have no idea how I will pay the rent.’

Like permanent members of staff, who often struggle to cope with unrealistic workloads and other increasing pressures, casualised staff suffer from deteriorating health caused by prolonged insecurity and overwork. A 2015 article ( ) highlights the emotional impact of job insecurity and exploitation on tutors and lecturers on casualised contracts. Interviewees mention anxiety and negative thoughts of the future, some of them mentioning ‘being close to “breaking point”’. One respondent states that ‘“I’ve reached the stage where I’m thinking I don’t even know if I can do this anymore, I really don’t”’. As the comments from tutors in The Student article shows, hourly paid teaching staff at the University of Edinburgh are no strangers to unpaid work and anxiety caused by their working conditions.

As data released this month shows ( ), the University of Edinburgh is still – in 2016 – one of the universities in the UK with the largest percentage of staff on casualised contracts. This is one league table in which we should be ashamed to be in the top three. In terms of employing numbers of staff on ‘atypical’ contracts, that is to say hourly rather than fixed-term contracts, the University of Edinburgh is still – as in 2013 – the worst offender, with the largest number of ‘atypical’ workers: 3,760 staff members ( ). Importantly, most tutors and lecturers on hourly contracts do not get paid for research, which goes directly against the University’s aim to provide research-led teaching. Many also do not get paid, or are insufficiently paid, for meeting with students, or to prepare their classes properly.

We in UCU know that bad working conditions for teachers means bad learning conditions for students. As we have seen casualised staff members’ conditions deteriorate, with many of them living hand to mouth with no job security, we have also seen – despite our best efforts as teachers – education becoming less of a priority for UK universities. While the university cares about getting good NSS results, when teachers and researchers raise issues regarding workloads and insecure working conditions – both of which ultimately impact students – we are not listened to.

Lena Wånggren, UCU Edinburgh Vice President

Clara Martinez Nistal, UCU Edinburgh Officer for Fixed-term and Hourly-paid Staff