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.