A fifth of academic staff on casual contracts struggle to put food on the table

Insecure and exploitative contracts have made their way into universities too


According to a recent YouGov poll, academia is still surprisingly sought after as a lifestyle. More people coveted the ‘aura of prestige’ that surrounds the quiet, intellectual life enjoyed by authors, librarians and academics, than wanted to be movie stars or singers.

However, it is not clear how many people were aware of the harsh reality of life in our universities and colleges in Britain today. Romantic notions of secure, stress-free careers bear no resemblance to the life of the 21st century lecturer, tutor, researcher or lab technician.

A report released today by my union, the University and College union, reveals how more than two-fifths (42 per cent) of staff on casual contracts in universities and colleges have struggled to pay household bills. Over a third (35 per cent) reported that they struggled to meet rent or mortgage demands and an alarming one in five (21 per cent) said that they had struggled to put food on the table.

Around 10 per cent of those quizzed said they could not give an accurate figure on how many hours they worked or how much money they earned each month because it varied too much. A third (34 per cent) said that they have had problems getting a mortgage because of their contracts.

The real extent of the problem is far bigger though, as many who said they could not get a mortgage reported that this was because they had never even tried; they knew there would be no point while they remained on a casual contract.

The exploitative use of casualised contracts breeds insecurity, anxiety, stress and forces people to work long hours for poor pay. Today’s report exposes the true human cost of life on a casual contract and shatters any ‘aura of prestige’.

What many students probably don’t realise is that most of them are taught at some point, perhaps even for most of their time in education, by people on insecure casual contracts. These are people who don’t know from year to year, term to term, or even from month to month, whether they will have a job or how much they might earn.

Those people teaching students in some of the world’s greatest universities are then going home to fill in the form to secure tax credits.

Staff starting their careers today are more likely to have a casual contract than a permanent one and the personal impact of this lack of security is profound and long-lasting.

It means that people often don’t know how they will make ends meet from one month to the next. And it means that the big life decisions like buying a house or having children must be indefinitely postponed.

It is a myth that zero-hours contracts and other forms of casual contracts offer a fair and sensible deal for workers and employers. Employers and ministers must stop trying to defend these practices as flexible. Flexibility should not be a one-way street, and people who want security and a proper contract should be able to find one.

For more on UCU’s work to stamp out casualisation in further and higher education visit www.ucu.org.uk/stampout 

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union. Follow UCU on Twitter

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