From the TUC

£6 an hour pay and no security – life in a zero-hours college

17 Dec 2014, By Guest

Decent Jobs WeekWhen people think about poverty pay and zero-hours contracts, universities and colleges aren’t usually the first workplaces that spring to mind. So it may come as a surprise to learn that 46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero-hours contracts, while young workers starting a career in research face a lifetime of insecurity, with 68% of university researchers on fixed-term contracts.

During TUC Young Workers Month we wrote to our young members here at UCU to ask about their experiences of working in post-16 education – and the response was overwhelming.

Casualisation is a huge issue in the post-school sector. A member at a mid-sized new university told us that he has worked at his institution for four years, had fourteen contracts of employment and is still denied a permanent deal. Another at a university in the north of England told us that, while working two fixed-term, part-time contracts, he became crucial to the delivery of a degree programme and yet his employer refused to offer a full-time contract. When teaching came to an end in April, he was left with no prospect of work until the following academic year. No firm offer of work arrived until August and his summer was spent working in minimum wage jobs to support his family rather than developing his modules. Describing the effect these practices have, he told us:

“…universities are taking an ultra-short term view of their academic staff… as it stands I have no security, am under a great deal of stress and find it difficult to develop myself professionally.”

Insecure employment can lead to problems outside the workplace, in addition to those within it. A member at a London FE college told us it took him four years after completion of his PGCE to find permanent work:

“I never knew whether I would have a job and was paid far less [than colleagues] because academic holidays are unpaid. This resulted in a stress-related illness and in turn the breakdown of my marriage. I was only 27.”

Education workers often put in hours far beyond those that they’re paid for, with hourly-paid teachers amongst hardest hit. Early Careers researchers often feel they have no choice but to take on teaching work in order to ease financial pressures and boost their academic credentials, but all too often the rewards are tantamount to poverty pay. A member at a research-intensive university in north east England provided a breakdown of hours worked against those she gets paid for, and calculates that her effective hourly rate is just £5.78. Discussing the necessity of this work, she says:

“It sucks, and we have very little power to complain or take action as we are so vulnerable and want to be able to get a job in academia at the end of it all.”

Another hourly paid lecturer who has a PhD, a teaching qualification and experience at top institutions paints a similar picture, highlighting the discrepancy between her pay and that of her tenured colleagues:

“I am doing exactly the same work as [permanent staff] but my pay works out at around £5/6 per hour… The university often give me just two or three days’ notice before they want me to start teaching on a module.

I’ve carried on with this job for so long because I really love it, I’m good at it, and it’s useful to be linked to an academic institution. I’m now considering leaving academia because I can’t live like this much longer.”

Fortunately though, it’s not all bad news. UCU is also at the forefront of the battle against casualisation; our annual anti-casualisation day of action grows every year with the 2014 event being marked in over seventy branches. Our reps and national negotiators work to win real improvements for casualised staff every day, and the union has fought some tough battles to see improvements to pay for its members.

It’s crucial that issues affecting young workers are raised and tackled, but the views of young workers can only be authentically articulated if young workers are here in the union to articulate them. If you know someone working in post-16 education, doing a PGCE or preparing for a career in academia, please ask them to consider joining UCU.

UPDATE: The 2015 Day of Action on casualisation is 19 Nov. Visit the UCU website to see what union activists around the country are doing to mark it and protest these worsening changes.

One Response to £6 an hour pay and no security – life in a zero-hours college

  1. John
    Dec 18th 2014, 2:14 am

    Another disturbing Touchstone article. I ask myself how on earth did this ever start? Someone’s idea of reducing bottom line costs (with poor conditions of employment) without any thought being given to the affect on the individual or their families, whether the person on a temporary contract liked this type of work arrangement or not.

    Is this system used in óther European colleges, universities and if so is it better or worse?