This is a slightly extended version of my official election statement for the seat representing casually employed members in higher education in the 2021 elections to the University and College Union’s National Executive Committee. For further information, please see notes on how my proposals could be implemented here, and my general approach to the issue of precarity here.
I am currently a fixed-term researcher in medieval history, and since starting my PhD in 2010 I have experienced many aspects of the tragedy and farce which is precarity in higher education in both the UK and Germany. Through recent work with the Manchester Anti-Precarity Network and Manchester University UCU I am well aware of the additional difficulties faced by, amongst others, precarious staff with caring responsibilities, disabilities, and/or without the means to bridge between fixed-term contracts which are now the real ‘qualification’ for progress in so many HE career paths.
The enormous costs of precarity to individual health and wellbeing and to the diversity and sustainability of the sector are now well known, but employers continue to insist that supposed realities of workforce planning make large-scale precarity unavoidable. We must counter this narrative more directly.
I am therefore standing for election primarily because I wish to work with comrades to develop an anti-precarity campaign rooted in the fact that precarious work is always a transfer of risk from employer to worker. Temporary staff must be compensated for the high risk of redundancy which is forced onto them so that employers can escape the often negligible risk of reduced workforce efficiency (defined in narrowly economic terms).
This risk sharing could take the form of paid career development opportunities in addition to the original contract (e.g. internships and fellowships). But any form of compensation should encourage universities to insure themselves against the risk of additional costs by employing more permanent staff and by working with research funders to change funding models. Workforces could and would be managed very differently if exploitation through temporary employment and ever-expanding workloads was not the default.
Whatever its eventual outcome, a campaign for risk-sharing compensation would immensely strengthen our existing anti-precarity and workload campaigns by clearly demonstrating to colleagues, students and the wider public that workforce planning is not a binary choice between permanence and precarity for individuals, but a question of who bears the cost of managing the systemic risk. Whilst some temporary staff will always be necessary, the exploitation of staff through risk dumping is never inevitable, and never acceptable.
Wherever there is no sharing of risk, temporary employment is always exploitative, no matter how strong the ‘objective justifications’ for its use. The same applies to outsourcing and to hourly-paid contracts under which the hours can be varied at the employer’s discretion, such as zero-hours contracts. In these cases, however, I support the existing UCU policy of entirely ending outsourcing and zero-hour contracts. I also wish to see an end to the use of hourly paid contracts for teaching work, and all contracts which involve teaching should be at least 12 months in length. All staff (teaching, research and professional services) should have proper contracts of employment, and this includes postgraduate researchers and teaching assistants in both of these functions: I fully support the new ‘PGRs as staff’ campaign.
Employers should provide trade unions with comprehensive and up-to-date information on their use of temporary forms of employment (not merely what happens at the end of these contracts) at departmental/divisional level to enable the identification of areas where greater use could be made of permanent contracts. Each department or division should have a permanent member of staff appointed as a coordinator and advocate for fixed-term staff (and appropriately credited for this role in the workload allocation). Fixed-term staff should be treated the same as new permanent staff, and information on the employer’s redeployment policies should be included in all adverts for fixed-term posts.
All of these objectives are important, and will remain important even if we win risk-sharing compensation. But we need a campaign for risk sharing to tie together this range of demands and give a focal point to the overall campaign, to unite precarious and permanent staff behind a set of demands which address the needs of all, and to move beyond demands which would shave off the rougher edges of precarity to a plan for eradicating exploitation from the higher education workforce.
I am a member of the new UCU Commons network (www.UCUCommons.org) and share its principles on equality and transparency, and on the importance of embedding industrial action in a wider strategy to win real and lasting change in our workplaces. I see a campaign for risk-sharing as a key part of that strategy.
I would also like to be a voice on the NEC for my fellow autistic members, and to advocate for the value of neurodiversity in decision-making processes.