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subtext 197 –
you know your worst is better than their best
- What’s Been Happening While We Were Away?
- It’s By-Election Fever
- Bailrigg Garden City
- Tolerance News
- Roll of (Dis)honour – Update
- Valete, Team Spineless
- A Post-Lockdown Utopia
- Review – ‘New Perspectives’ at the Peter Scott Gallery in June and July 2021
- Widden’s Reviews
subtext 196 –
wholly government-approved free-speaking subtext
- Campus Update: Quieter, But Not That Quiet
- Struck Off
- Diary of a Rent Strike Organiser
- Inglorious Partnerships
- Freedom of Peach
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Tag Archives: anti-casualisation
Casual readers may be forgiven for thinking that subtext’s drones are embittered cynics whose philosophy can be summed up as ‘D Floor bad, HR enablers of bad’. In an effort to challenge this notion, here’s a vote of thanks for the new ‘Fixed-term Contracts and Casual Working Policy and Procedure’, drafted by a working group involving the campus unions and approved by the Joint Negotiating and Consultative Committee (JNCC) on 4 November 2019. It isn’t easy to find online, and hasn’t yet been put on HR’s page of policies and procedures, but can be accessed on the intranet here:
The Director of HR comments that the new policy ‘underlines our commitment to making sure staff feel secure and supported at this university.’ It’s been lauded in the House of Commons by Cat Smith MP, who invited the Minister of State for Universities and Science to ‘join me in welcoming the changes at Lancaster University’ (Commons Hansard, 20 January 2020). In short:
1) Fixed-term contracts will only be used in these circumstances: cover for temporary staff absence; cover for one-off peaks in demand; recognised and time-limited training programmes; and if a staff member requests it (the latter includes situations where an external funder stipulates that their funding is conditional on the position being fixed-term).
2) ‘All staff currently employed on fixed-term contracts will be automatically moved onto indefinite contracts,’ unless their role falls into one of these four cases.
3) Casual (in other words hourly-paid) contracts will only be used in these circumstances: very short term roles up to 12 weeks in duration; and ad hoc roles with no regular pattern of work and no obligation between the parties to offer or accept work (i.e. zero-hour contracts).
The unions offered particular praise to HR Service Delivery Manager Matt Ireland for overseeing the drafting and approval process. All in all, a good news story…
…except that doubts are now setting in amongst union activists regarding HR’s commitment to implementing it. Mr Ireland has now left Lancaster to work for an NHS Trust in East Lancashire.
Let’s look at the current list of vacancies. Among them is an advert for a Business Analyst in Admissions and Outreach (ref N2348), who ‘will focus on the implementation of a new postgraduate admissions system.’ This is ‘a fixed term role, initially until 31st October 2020.’ There’s also a role as Business Relationship Officer for the Lancashire Cyber Foundry (ref N2347), part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, which seeks to develop ‘a unique business support programme for small to medium enterprise businesses across a range of industrial sectors.’ This is ‘a fixed term post until 30 September 2022’ – note that, according to the new policy, ‘time-limited funding, in itself, will not be justification to place an individual on a fixed-term contract.’ Maybe you’d like to be a Disability Advisor (ref N2338), leading on ‘support for disabled students on the new Frontline postgraduate Social Work programme.’ This is ‘a two year fixed term appointment.’
Have recruiting managers just not got the memo, or has the memo not been sent in the first place?
What about those currently on fixed-term contracts – can they expect to receive letters confirming their indefinite status any day now? It seems unlikely: HR’s page on ‘ending fixed-term contracts’ has not been updated since March 2019 and still claims that, ‘if you wish to extend a fixed-term contract, you need to submit a Manager Request using Core MyHR. Alternatively, a request to Transfer to Indefinite Contract can be made. If managers are awaiting authorisation so that further employment can be offered it is strongly advised that a case for redundancy is made in parallel as a precautionary measure. Any such proposal can be withdrawn once authorisation has been received.’
It may, then, be some time before Lancaster is, to quote the policy, ‘using indefinite contractual arrangements wherever possible and reducing the use of fixed-term and casual arrangements.’ But the policy is there – subtext would be interested to hear any evidence of it actually being used.
Fortnightly during term time.
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In this issue: editorial, hostile environment (x4), sticky wiki, Gary on teacher (x4), flounders, surveying the surveyors (x2), democracy, LUSU (x3), crazy paving, gradballs (x2), lost & found, mostly men o’ wisdom, wet and forget, spine, buses, UCU (x2), letter.
Today, one of the most highly skilled professions in Britain, university teaching, is dominated by zero-hours contracts, temp agencies, and other forms of precarious conditions, while many tasks that relate to areas in which we have world-leading expertise are outsourced to morally dubious consultancy firms. A staggering number of early-career academics are affected by precarity, but none more so than international staff, who are not only uncertain about their full time job prospects, but flat out prevented from enjoying basic academic freedoms (from supporting strike action to attending conferences abroad, and participating in long-term fieldwork). No matter how much energy and effort one puts in navigating the byzantine bureaucracy, the product might be a standardized letter from the Home Office:
‘As you appear to have no alternative basis of stay in the United Kingdom you should now make arrangements to leave. If you fail to make a voluntary departure a separate decision may be made later to enforce your removal.’
We continue to champion our ‘global outreach and commitment to global research’, yet fail to provide even basic assistance for international staff. Our HR processes and visa teams seem increasingly forced to focus on compliance first (and sometimes compliance only), rather than on providing support to staff and students. The glossy ‘welcome package’ sent out to those who survive the immigration process contains little more than empty slogans and a list of overpriced and opportunistic relocation services. Rather than selling narratives of the ‘Global University’ (at open days and to our colleagues abroad with whom we are asked to network), let’s try addressing the realities of people leaving the UK over Brexit, and the increasingly hostile environment for international staff.
The Annual General Meeting of Lancaster UCU on Wednesday 16 May in the Elizabeth Livingston Lecture Theatre passed off without incident. Rumours of coups and tantrums (prams and toys) and factions were groundless or forgotten. The meeting voted through several amendments to the local branch rules and listened to a report from the Chair and the Membership Officer, plus an update from the Treasurer. There was also a report on the anti-casualisation workshop (see below). The ‘results’ of ‘elections’ to the executive were announced (none of the posts were contested and most officer positions were already taken.) Members were assured that this situation would be handled by the new executive with co-options into these positions. This all seemed rather odd but there were no dissenting voices so with a feeling of ‘nothing much to see here’ the meeting moved on. In a sign of changing times, the executive had instructed members that in the interests of minimising our environmental impact, they would not be printing multiple copies of the documents for the meeting. Members were advised that if they would like to have them in front of them during the meeting, then a digital device would be a good idea. They also displayed them on the lecture theatre screen at relevant points in the meeting. Woo save the planet!
CHALLENGING CASUALISATION – A ROADSHOW REPORT
An event organised by the Lancaster UCU anti-casualisation working group took place on Wednesday 2nd May in George Fox Lecture Theatre 2. There, more than thirty colleagues reported a range of contractual situations: teaching colleagues employed on hourly-paid contracts; researchers on a succession of fixed term contracts; colleagues often juggling two or more contracts and other colleagues who had experienced casualised employment contracts in the past.
Speakers included Dr Catherine Oakley, a researcher based at the University of Leeds, a new member of the UCU national anti-casualisation committee. Catherine is a founding member of The Academic Precariat collective, an ‘…activist-led platform uniting education workers employed precariously in UK HE’ and co-author of a report ‘The Precarious Post Doc’ https://tinyurl.com/y8kqthjc. Lancaster University’s Dr Joanna Kostka led a discussion on the challenges faced by international colleagues and their precarious employment experiences. UCU’s Jonathan White, a national pay and bargaining official with a specific focus on the union’s anti-casualisation work, talked about what the union is doing at a national level to challenge casualisation. The final session was led by Craig Jones and Dr. Joao Nunes de Almeida, both of Lancaster University, asking what we can do now to move forward within this University to challenge the increased casualisation of employment contracts. A number of practical steps were suggested in addition to the work that the union is already doing through supporting colleagues through casework. Members attending the workshop proposed setting up an anti-casualisation network with face-to-face meetings and a virtual presence and organising regular one hourly drop-in sessions for colleagues to discuss specific issues around casualised employment and experiences of precarity.
If you are interested in finding out more about what local staff are doing to challenge the increasing casualisation of academic work, or in joining the anti-casualisation working group, please contact Clare Egan, the UCU anti-casualisation rep.
The casualisation and precarious working practices of academic staff are issues that universities are loath to acknowledge, let alone address, and are a far bigger issue than they would admit. However, as universities become more competitive for students, reputation becomes more important, and they are vulnerable to charges of sacrificing quality by employing their staff on contracts that hinder their ability to deliver the best for their students.
It doesn’t help that the figures collected and disclosed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and by universities are obfuscatory. HESA claims that figures, as they are currently gathered, don’t give a straight answer on the level of precarious employment in academia, making it impossible to understand the real scale of the problem. However, a 2016 report in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay) found that 53% of academics in British universities were on some form of insecure contract, leading to accusations that vice-chancellors had imported the ‘Sports Direct model’ into British universities.
So, how does Lancaster fare? Well, on the minus side, we’re up there with the Russell Group, ranking 14th most insecure out of the 50 respondents, in a league table calculated by adding 2013/14 HESE data to the results of a UCU FOI request on zero hour contracts. On the other minus side (there isn’t really a plus to this, as far as we can see), 65.9% of our academics are designated as being on precarious contracts.
It does not have to be like this. The University of Glasgow has agreed a new employment policy which should rule out putting zero-hours contracts on teaching staff, as well as limiting the use of casual ‘worker’ contracts. Recent reports in the THES (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/universities-under-pressure-scrap-use-nine-month-contracts – paywall) suggest Durham will no longer use 9-month contracts for Teaching Fellows, after a sustained campaign by the so-called ‘Durham Casuals’, a group of staff fighting against precarity and casualisation.
There is still a long way to go before the sector as a whole reverses the damaging tide of precarity, but these small gains indicate that the onward march towards precarity may be slowing.
PRECARITY AND THE HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
Lancaster University likes to think of itself as ‘a global university, which operates on a human scale’. But is it?
Lancaster’s Strategy for 2020 clearly articulates that its ‘core strength’ is ‘its people’. Yet an increasing number of highly skilled professionals, who contribute to Lancaster’s international reputation, face challenges conveniently obscured by the global ethos. In the UK today, more than a quarter of researchers are from abroad, as are more than a third of PhD students. In a 2017 survey of 1,300 ‘international’ researchers working in Higher Education Institutions, 79% expressed uncertainty about the future of research and their profession post-Brexit, and doubts about their long-term financial security. International researchers reported feeling unwelcome in the UK through the perceived increase in xenophobia and the uncertainty around the rights of EU nationals to remain in the UK. A survey conducted by YouGOV for UCU found that: 44% of respondents know of academics who have lost access to research funding as a direct result of Brexit, and that 76% of non-UK academics are considering leaving UK higher education.
The situation of non-EU academics on Tier 2 Visas is even more stringent. Universities – in line with hospitals, schools, and municipalities – are asked to participate in border control. A new requirement of academics, for instance, is to monitor the attendance of overseas students, while heads of departments screen ‘suspicious’ unauthorised absences of ten days or more in a row of international staff and students. The compiled data is available to the Home Office.
STRIKE IT LUCKY
A significant number of international lecturers and researchers at Lancaster (and other institutions) did not participate in the recent strikes, fearing deportation. As one informant explained to subtext, ‘I support the action but I cannot afford any hassle from the Home Office, most of my department is not on strike and I did get an informal ‘warning’ that my sponsor is required to report unauthorised absence. It took me months to secure this longer contract and even longer to get my family here. I simply can’t risk it.’
While bullying of this type is unacceptable, and technically illegal, both the university management and the government have failed to provide an unequivocal, written guarantee to international academics that days spent taking legitimate strike action will not put their immigration status at risk.
This threat to the right to participate in strikes is but one example of hostility from the Home Office, which thus far has not been adequately challenged by our sector for its treatment of international staff and students. Applying for permanent residency is an expensive (costs for visa applications range from £500 to £10,000) affair of Kafkaesque complexity. One form runs to 85 pages and requires forms of proof that one professor said ‘makes acquiring Catholic sainthood look simple’.
Post-study work visas have been abolished, with universities tacitly discouraged from hiring foreign academics – even those trained in the UK – through the imposition of a series of arcane challenges targeting non-EU citizenship. The 12-month ‘cooling-off’ period, as it is now called, is essentially a bar to foreign early career academics establishing themselves in the UK (the Tier 2 cooling off period prohibits a Tier 2 visa holder from returning to the UK for a period of 12 months after the expiry of their contract). Rather than challenging this, universities are swiftly replacing year-long positions with nine or ten-month contracts.
MOTHER MAY I
As precarious as international academics and other university staff and students may feel, they are usually relatively affluent and have access to information and resources that others can only dream of. The Lancaster Guardian recently reported (https://www.lancasterguardian.co.uk/news/lancaster-man-faces-deportation-1-9158001) on the case of Lancaster resident Solomon Yitbarak, who was threatened with deportation for the heinous crime of ending a relationship that originally provided the basis for his spousal visa. Despite last-minute attempts to halt his deportation to Ethiopia, where he faces persecution for his political activism, it appears he has been forced to leave the country, much to the consternation of his local network of friends and acquaintances.
These shocking actions by the Home Office are not restricted to those outside academe, however – in the fall-out following the BBC Panorama investigation into cheating at a Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) test centre in 2014, then Home Secretary Theresa May is said to have illegally deported tens of thousands of students (https://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/theresa-may-wrongly-deported-48000-students-after-bbc-panorama-exposes-toeic-scam-a6958286.html), and there are multiple reports of academics from other EU countries receiving ‘pack your bags and leave’ letters from the Home Office after applying for permanent residency documentation using the aforementioned 85-page form. Despite new Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s assurances that it is over, the hostile environment is as prevalent as ever.