Risk Sharing in the Higher Education Workforce

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On this page I try to anticipate questions which might arise in response to the proposal for risk-sharing compensation in the form of paid career development opportunities which I put forward in my NEC election statement. These are solely my own thoughts, and it goes without saying that I am not an employment lawyer or otherwise an expert on the technicalities. But I hope that the principles will stand up to scrutiny. If there is anything else that you think I should address, please contact me here.

Preliminary Points

1. These questions and answers are designed to be read in conjunction with my NEC election statement.

2. Regardless of whether risk-sharing compensation is actually implemented in any form, the campaign for this compensation would have enormous value in raising awareness of exploitation through risk dumping and building solidarity between staff on different types of temporary contract and between precarious and permanent staff.

3. The following is therefore only an outline which could be developed as the basis of a campaign, from which would emerge a programme for actual implementation.

How would an internship scheme work?

Any fixed-term/temporary employee would be entitled to a paid internship (which could also be called a placement or fellowship, according to the nature of the work involved), undertaken at a time of their choosing and with an employer of their choosing (paid at the same rate as the original temporary post and funded at full economic cost). Anyone voluntarily leaving a temporary post before the end of their contract would be eligible for a corresponding proportion of the internship. The aim would be to negotiate maximum flexibility for the employee: internships outside of the sector, even outside the UK, would theoretically be possible. If an employee gains a second temporary post, the internship entitlement would roll over, and could be combined with the entitlement arising from the second post. Of course, an employer could end their liability at any time by making the employee permanent.

The opportunity would be open to staff in all roles (teaching, research-only and professional services). The principle could be agreed via national bargaining and implemented nationally, or the same arrangements could come about as the result of local agreements. But a national scheme would have several advantages (detailed below).

How long would the internship last?

This would be a matter for collective bargaining. The absolute minimum would be three or four months per contract (of any length). The entitlement could apply per contract or per contracted year (or part thereof). The latter would obviously maximise the increase in the cost of temporary staff (incentivising the use of permanent staff), but the former would incentivise the use of longer temporary contracts.

What would count as ‘temporary employment’?

This would need to be carefully defined. Alongside fixed-term contracts, open-ended contracts with a known risk of redundancy (related to fixed-term project funding, for example) should be included. Indeed, all staff made redundant within four years of their appointment could be eligible, unless this individual redundancy is part of a wider redundancy process (to prevent newer staff being advantaged over longer-serving staff in such a process).

Since hourly-paid work with hours which can be varied at the employer’s discretion is also a form of risk dumping, such contracts might also count as ‘temporary’ even if the contract itself is permanent or open-ended. But our first objective should be to eliminate such contracts (as per current UCU policy).

Would temporary staff be able to prolong their current post as an internship?

Whether internees should be able to continue doing essentially the same job as their original temporary post would need to be considered in the design of the scheme. Employees should have this option in so far as employers can be prevented from abusing this right by in any way obliging staff to continue working in their original post (and correspondingly shortening the original contract).

Would this apply to Graduate Teaching Assistants?

The situation for GTAs is slightly different because of the ‘apprenticeship’ quality of the employment itself. Nonetheless, the exploitation of GTAs and postgraduate researchers in general is one of the most shameful aspects of HE in the UK, as has recently been recognised through UCU’s ‘PGRs as staff’ campaign, which I fully support. In my opinion, this process represents the best way forward for pre-doctoral staff. But I would not rule out negotiating for the inclusion of GTAs in risk-sharing arrangements, not least in order to increase pressure on employers to agree to our ‘PGRs as staff’ demands.

What would be the legal status of the internship?

Legally, the internship would be a fixed-term contract of employment. But such posts would be clearly separated from other fixed-term contracts in the collection of sectoral statistics, so that we can still monitor employers’ use of temporary employment.

How would internships be arranged?

Employers would be obliged to help their temporary employees to find internships, potentially including paid working time and/or workload allocation for the process of arranging the placement. As the posts would be funded at full economic cost by the original employer, a potential host employer could be expected to be cooperative, unless there are practical capacity constraints or safety concerns. In such cases, internees may obviously have to settle for a second-choice placement. Under a national scheme, this process could be centrally managed.

What about specialist practitioners with parallel employment outside of HE?

It is not at all clear that fixed-term contracts are as necessary for the employment of specialist practitioners in teaching as universities often claim, and many of these practitioners are treated very poorly. But some (e.g. those in permanent non-HE employment) may not be interested in an internship, potentially advantaging them over their colleagues in any competition for roles within HE. A national scheme would guard against this because employers’ payments would be linked to the original contract rather than the internship, so that individual employers would not directly gain from employing someone who does not subsequently undertake an internship.

In any case, specialist practitioners should not be exempted from the compensation requirement, both to prevent this status being used as a loophole by employers and because the compensation itself would be just as important to many practitioners as to those trying to build careers entirely within HE.

Why an internship rather than additional pay?

The paid internship both delays the realisation of the risk (of unemployment) and reduces the risk (of prolonged unemployment or a career-ending redundancy) by supporting the internee’s professional development. It would also result in additional productive work, and therefore represents much better value for money for both the employee and the sector than a simple higher salary (although this would also share the cost of the workforce planning risk to some extent).

What would be the equality impacts?

Risk-sharing compensation for temporary employees would increase employers’ costs under their statutory and other obligations in respect of parental leave when temporary staff are used to cover this leave. Any resulting discrimination would obviously be illegal, but a national scheme could also protect employers from additional risk of this sort. The total cost of the scheme could be distributed between employers according to their ratio of temporary to permanent staff weighted by the demographics of the permanent staff (so that permanent staff more likely to require leave would count for more in the ratio than those less likely to require leave).

This arrangement could also work to the advantage of employers if their payments to the scheme were based on a multi-year rolling average of the above ratio, which would smooth out any spikes in the annual cost.

What would be the position of migrant staff?

Any visa fees connected to the internships would have to be paid by employers, so we would need to guard against this making migrant staff more expensive to employ. A national scheme could achieve this, because employers’ contributions would be determined solely by how many fixed-term contracts they use, not by the costs associated with particular contracts. The additional costs of visa fees would therefore not be met directly by the employer of the migrant member of staff, but out of the combined  payments to the national scheme. If this does not provide sufficient protection, migrant staff could also be weighted within the payment calculation so that their employment does not pose a greater risk to employers than that of any other staff.

Would there be unintended consequences for permanent staff? 

Permanent staff should gain considerably from risk-sharing compensation for temporary staff because their own workloads would be less stretched. If the compensation succeeds in making retention of some workforce planning risk (through the employment of more permanent staff) economically prudent for employers, this risk will sometimes be realised in the form of ‘spare capacity’ within the permanent workforce. This could be used productively, but would also provide a partial solution to the current workload crisis.

However, UCU would need to guard against employers’ attempts to offload this risk onto permanent staff by making even higher workload demands. Permanent staff will have to know that they will be supported by the union in resisting such demands. In practice, risk-sharing compensation will only come about as the result of a substantial and highly visible campaign, and employers’ actions in response to the change will be under careful scrutiny.

Recognising that our ‘workload’ and ‘casualisation’ disputes are essentially two manifestations of the same problem of risk dumping represents our best chance to win on both. And the solidarity between permanent and precarious staff which is indispensable to any progress is best served by clearly linking the two disputes.

Would there be unintended consequences for GTAs?

If permanent teaching staff find themselves with ‘spare capacity’ (in the scenario described immediately above), employers might use this capacity to reduce the amount of work done by GTAs. This must also be guarded against, ideally through pre-doctoral employment as demanded by the ‘PGRs as staff’ campaign. Failing this, permanent and fixed-term staff must be supported to resist workload demands which would leave GTAs with less work than in previous years, and an expectation that GTAs would not be adversely impacted should be included in any risk-sharing agreement with employers.

Would there be unintended consequences for smaller departments/specialisms?

In a system less reliant on temporary employment, very small departments and sub-disciplines might be more likely to have to employ temporary staff than larger workforce units, as the level of staff leave in any given year is less predictable in a smaller permanent staff population. This could cause employers to view these parts of the workforce as less economically viable. This could be guarded against in a national scheme as described above: staff in small units could be given more weight in the ratio of permanent to temporary staff, so that overall they do not pose a greater risk to the employer than other staff. UCU would not need to be involved in this categorisation of staff, as employers would have an incentive to ensure that they all used the same criteria.

Wouldn’t universities just reduce pay and conditions for fixed-term staff in response?

If an employer attempted to pay a fixed-term employee less than a permanent colleague they would be in breach of the 2002 Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations. Any agreement with employers would stipulate that the risk-sharing compensation does not constitute part of the employee’s pay for duties performed, preventing employers from claiming otherwise if charged under these regulations.

Wouldn’t this be unaffordable for employers?

If employers continued to use temporary staff as they do at present, compensation for the risk offloaded onto these staff could indeed be expensive. (As a rough calculation, a research-intensive university with around 50% fixed-term staff by headcount might expend around 25% of staff costs on these staff, who are unlikely to be 50% of total FTE and are certainly at the lower end of the pay scale. If these staff cost on average 25% more after compensation, total staff costs would increase by 6%.) But employers could in many cases avoid the additional cost of fixed-term staff by taking the ‘risk’ of employing additional permanent staff.

When this employer’s share of the workforce planning risk materialises (mainly because of lower than expected levels of external research funding and/or staff leave) and permanent staff find themselves with spare capacity, this capacity could almost always be used productively. This additional cost is payment for additional work, and hence an investment. Modern universities do not normally seek to invest in their staff, but being obliged to do so would not hurt them.

If the costs of fixed-term staff increase, universities and research funders will be incentivised to work together to change funding models in favour of those which enable greater security of employment, further reducing universities’ exposure to additional costs. It is also worth noting that the largest workforce planning risk is faced by research-intensive universities, which tend also to be the wealthiest universities.

Wouldn’t there be fewer jobs?

It is sometimes suggested that the present system of precarity produces ‘more jobs’. It certainly creates more job adverts, and more opportunities to gain what may or may not turn out to be a footing on some kind of career ladder. But an abundance of ‘opportunities’ for poor quality, exploitative employment simply disadvantages those who are not able to tolerate these substandard terms. And overall there is self-evidently not more work to go around simply because potential permanent jobs are sliced into fixed-term fragments.

In some cases, the use of fixed-term contracts may be directly or effectively mandated by external research funders, and in the longer-term the increased cost of these staff would be the necessary stimulus to change these funding arrangements. In the short term, special transition arrangements could allow some of the more substantial fixed-term fellowships to continue as currently administered, so that there would be no need to award fewer fellowships in any given year.

If ending exploitation through risk dumping genuinely renders an area of employment unviable, then the abolition of the exploitation should not be seen as the cause of the cessation of the work: it was never truly sustainable in the first place, and we should never acquiesce to exploitative employment even when it seems expedient to do so in the short-term.

How could the transition be managed?

There are inevitably some risks involved in making such a substantial change to the HE workforce, but these can be overcome through the very solidarity that we will need to achieve in order to win this change in the first place, and that we can achieve with a campaign for a comprehensive response to precarity.

As can be seen from this set of questions and answers, there is a degree of complexity involved. But the basic principle is very simple, and most of the finer details mentioned above are generated by refinements which would justify the increased complexity. The administrative burden of risk-sharing compensation would be tiny in comparison to the overall size of today’s higher education bureaucracy, and its introduction would lead to a reduction in the administrative work generated by constant recourse to fixed-term contracts.

The compensation is important in itself, as there will always be some temporary staff, and temporary employment without appropriate compensation is always exploitative. But the scheme is also a means to the end of achieving our wider objectives of greater employment security and sustainable and equitable workloads for all. In itself, the campaign for risk-sharing compensation would achieve a great deal, by demonstrating that the exploitation of staff, whether temporary or permanent, is never inevitable or unavoidable.

Edits: 11 February 2021, added section ‘What would be the position of migrant staff?’

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