Vote for action on casualisation

This post is based on the third in a series of emails sent by Cambridge UCU to members on the consultative pay ballot that closes at noon on Wednesday June 27Cambridge UCU strongly recommends that all members vote to reject the pay offer and in favour of industrial action.

What follows is the work of CUCU’s anti-casualisation working group.

The national picture

The transformation of funding and ongoing marketisation of UK higher education is driving universities to casualise their workforces in pursuit of flexibility. Management increasingly view permanent employment as costly and risky, and seek to offload that risk onto staff by creating a dizzying array of insecure, precarious contracts now take many forms: fixed-term, variable hours, hourly paid, zero-hours and agency contractsThe process is bad for staff, who have to deal with the uncertainty of insecure contracts; and it is bad for universities, undermining the conditions necessary that staff need to do decent work, whatever their area of employment.

According to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data, in 2016-17, of around 280,000 academic staff in the UK, around 137,000 (49% of the total) were on open-ended or permanent contracts.* Nearly 70,000, or 25%, were on fixed-term contracts, and almost 72,000 (26%) on so-called ‘atypical contracts’. The ‘atypical’ category (defined here under ‘terms of employment’) covers a narrow range of precarious contracts like zero-hours contracts and rolling lecturing contracts of less than a month (it also captures a few types of work, such as examining, where short-term contracts are desirable). Different institutions interpret ‘atypical’ differently, and many use accounting tricks to keep their numbers low, for example by issuing fixed-term contracts to staff who are paid by the hour (see FoI results on p.5 of this document). The size of the precarious workforce is therefore likely to be much higher than HESA’s 72 000 figure.

The impact of casualisation on staff members themselves hardly needs spelling out. Insecurity and uncertainty impacts heavily on the finances, family life, and health, including mental health, of staff. It is becoming increasingly clear that precarious workforce is also false economy for employers: for instance, staff on fixed-term contracts often spend a significant fraction of their time looking for their next job. An extensive body of research on how casualisation worsens teaching performance at US institutions is collected hereCasualisation is also a gendered issue: men hold 27% more open-ended or permanent contracts than women (HESA, Fig. 3).

*Due to the limitations of HESA data, we do not have a picture of the intersection between casualisation and race and disability in the university workforce, nor do we have data for casualisation among academic-related staff.

The situation at Cambridge

As far as academic staff at Cambridge (excluding colleges) are concerned, a UCU FOI request in 2016 revealed the following distribution of contract categories across three different roles:


Teaching & research
Permanent staff
1571 (91.7%)
1936 (48.2%)
132 (62.9%)
Fixed-term staff
143 (8.3%)
2023 (50.4%)
76 (36.2%)
of which <1 year contract
19 (1.1%)
346 (8.6%)
24 (11.4%)
Hourly-paid staff
0 (0%)
55 (1.3%)
2 (0.9%)

The vast majority of temporary contracts are research-only, typically held by postdocs. Numbers of these are even higher than this table suggests: the most recent annual report of the Postdocs of Cambridge Society (PdOC) shows there are more than 4,000 postdocs associated with the University: Research Associates, Senior Research Associates, Junior Research Fellows and other categories. Their number has doubled over the last 15 years, now accounting for more than 35% of university staff. While such appointments are often prestigious, it is also clear that the nature of career trajectories they support is changing, with many early-career researchers in both STEM and Humanities & Social Sciences taking on a series of fixed-term appointments. Cambridge is at the forefront of the developing phenomenon of the serial or ‘precarious postdoc.

Our members and reps have also indicated that short fixed-term teaching and teaching and research fellowships to meet ongoing teaching needs are becoming more common at this institution. Oxford has been heading down this route for some time; we should not be following suit.

Cambridge: atypical contracts, ‘hidden’ college work, stagnating pay rates

On the surface, Cambridge seems to fare less badly than some other Russell group universities, with the Guardian reporting last year that 13.4% of Cambridge staff are on atypical contracts (staff on atypical contracts make up over 50% of the workforce in the Russell group overall). The figure for Cambridge, however, is artificially low: it doesn’t include the large volume of hourly-paid work performed for colleges. Oxford, the HE institution structurally most similar to us, reported 63.7% of staff on atypical contracts in 2016. College staff on fixed-term contracts are left out of Cambridge’s figures.

Our FoI requests suggest that a typical undergraduate college employs hundreds of different supervisors across a given academic year. The vast majority of them are paid the University’s standard rate (£35.18 for a pair). A great many of these supervisors do not rely on supervision for their primary income, but it is the case that pay for this work, which used to be pegged to the lecturer pay scale, has not kept pace with inflation, to the point where pay for supervision does adequately reflect preparation or marking time. This is particularly problematic for early-career academics (especially those on short-term contracts) and graduate students supervising topics for the first time. In fact a steep real terms decline in the value of pay affects all other forms of casual work in this University. Part of our local claims on casualisation will be directed towards reversing this decline.

Temporary Employment Service (TES) contracts in Cambridge

Due to data constraints we have focused mostly on the casualisation of academic staff. But it is clear that university managements exploit academic-related and support staff. Cambridge runs a Temporary Employment Servicean internal temp agency carefully set up to give staff as few benefits and employment rights as possible. Staff on TES contracts are considered workers rather than employees, but don’t even receive government-mandated agency worker rights, because TES isn’t considered a third-party service (HR statement here).

TES workers can be fired without notice. They are frequently not entitled to receive statutory sick pay, are enrolled in a worse pension scheme (UCRSS) than any University employee; they do not have access to any of the standard benefits for University employees. TES assignments last for a maximum to nine months, after which the worker must have a four week contract breakbefore being allowed to apply for work again; the break aims to prevent the possibility of the worker accruing any additional employment rights through duration of employment. Sickeningly, this prevents TES workers from receiving Statutory Maternity Pay: to be eligible for SMP one has to have been working continuously for 26 weeks without a break.

The number of staff on TES contracts fluctuate. At the time UCU filed an FoI request last month, there were 281 TES contracts across the University and the colleges; 45 at the University Library alone, but there were at least a few in most departments. Some of these contracts are for genuinely temporary situations, but it is clear that they are used much more widely than is justifiable to cover ongoing needs that would support better contracts. The widespread use of TES contracts is not good for those not on them either, with high turnover of staff and constant interruption of work. But above all, these contracts are not good for those on them. Our anti-casualisation working group has already heard from several workers who received repeat 9-month TES contracts. Staff deserve better.

Casualisation is a dire threat to the working conditions of present and future university staff. It is already reshaping UK higher education in pernicious ways that resemble the US higher education landscape. We are fighting for a national framework to hold our employers to account and reverse this dismal trend. Vote to reject the employers’ pay offer and yes to action on casualisation, and if you’re not already a member of UCU, join now.