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Academic gig economy

Jo Grady vows to fight the scourge of job insecurity in universities

This week we will begin, alongside other university unions, negotiations with employers for the 2024-25 pay round. University and College Union members have seen their real-terms pay slashed yet further during a cost-of-living crisis, and some of them now face the prospect of redundancies and course closures. Meanwhile, the government is refusing to fund increased Teachers’ Pension Scheme contributions for university employers.

We continue to defend our members’ interests on both pay and pensions, fighting for a fair pay settlement and to defend TPS with the same tenacity we brought to the recent pensions dispute involving the Universities Superannuation Scheme. But the working conditions of our members are just as important as these headline issues.

We are so often told that British higher education is “world-leading”. This tagline, trite though it may be, rings true in more ways than one. Our members do indeed produce elite research and deliver excellent teaching, but they do so in a sector that stands, thanks to the best efforts of employers and successive governments, as an exemplar of bad working conditions and job insecurity. Britain’s institutions lead the world here in a way not so worthy of self-congratulation.

Oxford contracts

Nowhere better encapsulates this grim and confounding state of affairs—where grand institutions of higher learning are founded on employment practices worthy of Uber and Deliveroo—than the University of Oxford. Our conservative estimate is that two in three Oxford academics are employed on fixed-term contracts, rising to a staggering 88 per cent of research staff. Nationally, almost two-thirds of research staff are on insecure contracts.

The cases of our members Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly, teaching staff at Oxford and respected authors, show that even these figures fail to capture the extent of the precarity. Despite having taught at Oxford—on its creative writing course—for more than 15 years, they had been denied the absolute bare minimum: the contractual status of employee, which affords staff the rights and protections necessary for a dignified and secure working life. Their win at an employment tribunal in February, with the judge ruling they should be given this basic status, was a landmark.

As Abrams said following the victory: “Casualisation is a race to the bottom—bad for teachers, bad for students, and bad for universities. I hope this ruling will encourage an urgently needed reboot in the way universities treat [the staff] on whom they rely.” Indeed, this ruling must be a wake-up call for the higher education sector’s nominal leaders.

Employer intransigence

Tireless organising and sustained industrial action from UCU members have resulted in some important advances in the fight against casualisation. At the Open University two years ago, 4,800 precariously employed staff were moved onto permanent contracts, while zero-hours contracts are now being phased out across the sector as a result of our strikes.

This progress, however, barely dents the underlying situation—underwritten by employer intransigence—of endemic precarity. More than 90,000 staff across the sector are on fixed-term contracts, and many are subject to the degrading gig economy conditions, devoid of rights, that the two lecturers experienced at Oxford.

Casualisation has a ruinous effect on the lives of our members. In a recent survey, more than 70 per cent of UCU members said their mental health had been damaged by having to work on insecure contracts, while 43 per cent reported negative impacts on their physical health.

These figures bring home that while pay and pensions often take centre stage during industrial disputes, drawing the most public attention and press coverage, dealing with poor working conditions could not be more urgent. Job insecurity degrades the higher education sector and the staff who keep it running day in, day out.

Doubling down

The University and College Employers’ Association (Ucea), supposed custodians of the sector, have refused time and again to take any serious national action to redress this status quo of degrading insecurity. University staff should not have to drag their employers through the courts to be granted the most basic rights. Nor should they be forced to go on strike for months on end for fairer pay and conditions, only for Ucea to double down.

Under my leadership, UCU will not relent until we have defeated the scourge of job insecurity and gig economy contracts in higher education. This remarkable tribunal loss for Oxford provides an opportunity. University bosses now need to consign these employment practices to the past where they belong.

If employers work with us and treat staff properly, the sector will be enriched for everyone. But if they fail to do so and instead double down on casualisation, nobody can say employers weren’t warned: staff will fight them industrially, legally and politically until we win.

Jo Grady is general secretary of the University and College Union