Today (May 7) is UCU’s Stamp Out Casual Contracts day. In the HE sector, a large number of staff are on zero-hour contracts in associate lecturer roles, research roles and so on. UCU is trying to highlight the prevalence of these contracts in the sector and fight against the casualisation of HE – not least as it impacts on student experience – if your lecturers are jobbing at several institutions and not paid to be there for anything other than class time (practice varies wildly from institution to institution – I’ve heard some shocking stories about how these staff are treated at some places – thankfully none of the institutions I have worked for) – then they’re not as available to see you or answer emails. High use of casual staff can also equal high turnover and students seeing several different faces.
That’s not to say all staff in HE should be permanent full-timers – there’s a need for guest lecturers, short-term or low-hours contracts for people like professionals who input into one or two modules a year, PhD students etc – but the problem with zero hours rather than alternative systems is that it is no guarantee of work, in some places this may also mean the organisation doesn’t see itself as having the same obligations or duty of care to these staff, yet staff are seen as being employed to all intents and purposes for organisations like the job centre.
Zero-hours contract jobs have been in the news a lot this week because of the Job Centre declaring that people with zero hour contracts can’t claim benefits. My first reaction to this story was that I was surprised this was a new policy. I’m ‘lucky’ (it seems bizarre that you have to consider yourself ‘lucky’ to have a job, but there we are, this is why days like this exist) in that I have a permanent academic contract. But I didn’t always – I worked variously as an ‘hourly paid’, ‘associate’ or ‘visiting lecturer’ at different institutions, each with different benefits and drawbacks, different expectations and different pay. The flexibility of that work was quite nice, but the insecurity was horrible – never knowing what your income will be that year or when you will actually get paid is terrifying. But the one I want to mention today is about the Job Centre and how it treats people in education (and this does not just apply to HE but any sort of education) on zero hours contracts just as a raising awareness tale.
I worked on zero-hours academic contracts 2006-2011. In 2006 this was alongside another job, but that job came to an end and I got enough work in universities and colleges that it became my sole income. (In Sep 2008 I secured PhD funding which meant my income became more stable until I completed my doctorate in 2011 and secured a permanent job). However, summer 2007 came and I was facing a long time between May and September with no income. I signed up with temp agencies, but in the meantime went to the Job Centre to sign on whilst I waited for the temp agency to provide work. I was told I was not eligible to sign on because I worked in education and people who work in education know that they have a long summer and if they choose to work in that sector, they have to just accept that. I explained I was on a zero hours contract and had no idea if I would get work in September. They said this didn’t matter, I was on the books of those institutions, I was clearly hoping to go back there rather than secure permanent work elsewhere (I guess I could have lied and said I was looking for a permanent job but what good would that have done?) and I was studying for a PhD anyway (part-time) so I would only get JSA if I was prepared to change career and stop studying should a permanent job opportunity arise.
This was under the Labour government so I can only imagine what it’s like under the Coalition. The message was clear: in education, you put up with zero-hours contracts, insecurity and four months of the year with no income, or else you change career. As pretty much the only way into academia is through working on a casual contract first, your choices are essentially presented as either work in a different sector (which is looking even harder if zero-hour contracts are common and equal ‘permanent employment’ to the job centre in other sectors too), or deal with it.
I got temp work that summer, so I only went a couple of weeks without income. Summer 2008 I managed to do so much marking I could afford to live without temping. The quality of my marking was not good enough though – I took on too much, too fast because, as I saw it, I had no choice in the matter if I wanted to pay my rent and eat AND work on my PhD studies.
I am not saying this as a slight against any of my employers – they did what the sector does, and compared to some, I was treated well when on zero hour contracts. But the stresses of those summers and not knowing how I could make ends meet were horrible and terrifying, especially given the Job Centre’s attitude, which now seems to apply to all sectors. So I want to post this today in solidarity with colleagues – in both HE and other sectors – nationally who are fighting for some security in knowing where their living costs will come from – and to highlight that, for many, to get into a career of their choice has so many hurdles, it can feel almost impossible to get there.