UCU Stamp Out Casual Contract graphic

Casualisation at the University of Birmingham

BUCU statement on the extent of casualisation at the University of Birmingham

On Thursday 17th November, the University of Birmingham officially responded to a flurry of press articles – (and one article in particular) accusing universities of making extensive and excessive use of precarious – otherwise known as ‘casualised’ – labour for the purposes of teaching in higher education.

The statement – (which you can find here) – transparently outlines the management’s position on the evidence that the University of Birmingham is the Russell Group university with the largest extent of casualisation amongst its teaching workforce.

The research reported by the Guardian found that the proportion of teaching and teaching-and-research staff on temporary or ‘atypical’ contracts at the University of Birmingham is 70.3%. In its reply, the University argued the contrary: that “only a small fraction of teaching (about 7%)” is done by members of staff employed through these contracts “because most of them are engaged for a small fraction of a full-time equivalent post”.

Later in the statement, the University proceeded to argue that this work is primarily carried out by two categories of staff that we often encounter in our casework – (1) “expert visiting lecturers, from commerce, industry and the professions” and (2) research students teaching whilst doing their research degrees. In a separate intramural response to the article, the University added that research students make up 56% of teachers on ‘atypical contracts’. How does the University of Birmingham justify this?

In the case of research students, the University believes that the use of casual contracts is justified by the fact that the work provides “valuable experience in teaching for research students who aspire to be academics… and it provides financial support for students”. If managers surveyed the issues on the ground, they would know that research students are concerned by the fact that the University grossly misrecognises the extent to which they rely on this work to fund their studies and career progression.

BUCU believes that the University of Birmingham does not act as a good employer by relying on such contracts for such a high proportion of teaching, and also believes that this directly undermines the quality of teaching – a benchmark which has so far been sustained only by the extraordinary efforts of our existing members and colleagues.

Equally derogatory in the response by the University is the conjecture that work conducted towards what it admits is “specialist teaching” is not the main source of income for most expert professionals, “but rather provides an opportunity to share their expertise and professional experience with our students”. Even though these professionals do the same work as everyone else, share offices and classrooms with us, and are excellent educators, the University regards their work as less important. To be more precise, the University judges the importance of specialist teachers’ work as contingent on the experience that they imbue students with, whilst denying them fair pay for their skills because they are not home grown, have not worked in academia, or do not have PhDs. This, too, must stop.

BUCU therefore demands that the University immediately stop using ‘experience’ as an excuse to undermine the needs and demands of casualised staff – who are more than articulate enough to communicate to managers when and what additional support is needed, as work is done for money, and work that does not pay is simply exploitative and unfair.

The University cannot expect staff to remain silent about the fact that their employer is taking lightly its duty of care and its responsibilities towards the employees that it depends on in order to function. In response, BUCU is acting to stamp out casual contracts at the University of Birmingham, and will continue to do so until the University ceases to judge staff on the basis of their official hourly contribution to teaching at this institution as a proportion of FTE. This is because the extent of casualisation – and therefore the true quality of higher education – cannot be assessed only by the official number of hours worked by members of staff on casual contracts, but rather also by considering the sheer amount of unpaid work that has kept the quality of education from collapsing due to poor management responses to government pressure and reforms.

For example, a ‘Teaching Diaries Survey’ organised by Warwick Anti-casualisation (the University of Warwick is second for casualisation in the Russell Group) showed that 23% of respondents reporting working without a written contract. Furthermore, considering the full range of responsibilities of hourly-paid tutors, these front-line members of staff worked an average of 2.6 unpaid hours per week. Of these hours, an average 1.5h per week were spent on unpaid admin and emailing, and an average of 1.7h per week on preparation. Additionally, even when considering unpaid hours, 24% of these front-line teachers received an actual wage below the National Living Wage of £7.20 per hour, whilst 32% live below the Living Wage of £8.20 per hour. (You can find the full results of their survey here: https://warwickanticasualisation.wordpress.com/teachingdiariessurvey/).

The example of casualised staff at Warwick – with whom we stand in solidarity – demonstrates that there is something deeply wrong with higher education. In the case of Birmingham, there is a huge gap between management’s figure of 7% and the press and union figure of 70%. This gap is due to a direct exploitation of necessary academic labour-time that employees are willing to do but that employers are unwilling to pay for. Or as UCU put it:

“Full-Time Equivalence is a very bad way of looking at people with part-time contracts. People employed on very small ‘FTE’ contracts simply disappear within aggregations of Full-Time Equivalence. All the Universities are showing is that there are a lot of people on small contracts.

But more seriously, it’s also deeply misleading to try to measure the work done by thousands of hourly paid lecturers by calculating their FTE as though they were full-time lecturers. Hourly paid teachers are contracted for a small number of teaching hours and their FTE will always look small. Full-time lecturers are contracted to teach, administer and research. One or two hourly-paid lecturers may do the same amount of teaching in a week as a full-time lecturer but their ‘FTE’ will be a tiny fraction of this, maybe only one day a week. And this doesn’t even get into the systematic underpayment of hourly paid lecturers relative to the work they do.

This is, of course, one of the reasons why universities have been so happy to employ hourly-paid lecturers in such large numbers. They get more classroom time for their money. Using FTE in this way is simply a way of hiding the amount of work being done by hourly-paid lecturers”.

We therefore stand in solidarity with colleagues in UCU by claiming that “If Universities really want to come clean on the ‘student experience’, they should publish the proportion of classroom tuition hours that are taught by staff on insecure contracts. We await their response”.

BUCU Casualised and Postgraduate Staff Working Group, 9 Jan 2017



Further reading:

Sally Hunt (UCU General Secretary) spoke to Times Higher Education:

UCU also explained in more detail why the employers conjuring tricks don’t work on the WonkHE blogsite


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