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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7 Responses to “A fifth of academic staff on casual contracts struggle to put food on the table”

  1. Peem Birrell

    >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.

    Shows how good your union is…

  2. Chris Kitcher

    That’s a particularly callous comment given the heartless manner in which her members are treated. Please think before making such comments in future.

  3. montypython

    This is accurate and disturbing but it’s only half the story. What this post doesn’t mention is the large number of baby boomer academics (and older) who continue to enjoy the privileges and pleasures (“the quiet intellectual life” as Sally puts it) of a tenured or secure life long contract, often outsourcing their teaching and mundane research to the kinds of casual wage slaves mentioned in this article. Not to mention the emeritus academics who seem to think they can soak up resources literally till they die.

    Who is allowing “the exploitative use of casualised contracts” as Sally puts it? It’s other academics.

    Academe is a two tier system which relies on the exploitation of junior academics by their senior colleagues. Yes, many professions are like that now, but I wonder what the UCU has done to address the issue that a number of their members are treating other members so badly?

  4. Dark_Heart_of_Toryland

    It shows why the unions are needed. It is no coincidence that levels of inequality have rocketed to todays grotesque levels since Thatcher shackled the unions.

  5. Sparky

    Or what? Sally Hunt will burst into tears? She’ll take her ball home and not let anyone else play? Jesus, how sanctimonious can a person get?

  6. Peem Birrell

    Don’t think many of the TUs we’re stuck with today are needed. Using anti-TU legislation as an excuse to avoid doing anything positive for their members or potential members.

    Instead of tackling the issues and the employers they pay wonks to produce pathetic reports or organise anti-austerity demonstrations. And when was this person ever a *member* of ‘her’ union?

  7. fighting-zero

    Peem’s comments suggest some previous bad experience with a union?
    My ucu branch works very hard on behalf of individual members – it has done a lot to help those on zero hours contracts but as others have said, everything at national level is made difficult by Tory govt.
    My job was simply taken away from me several year ago – and it was only because of the full year of help I got from UCU that the institution finally backed down and agreed I was “permanent” and paid my back salary.
    We need unions – not only to fight for national change – but to offer help and support to workers who are otherwise simply ignored by their employers. There is strength in numbers and I for one will always be thankful that I have union membership.

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