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Fighting the gig economy – of academics not students

Lots of Bristol University staff are highly educated, but casually employed. Bristol UCU is campaigning to change that.


Lots of Bristol University staff are highly educated, but casually employed. Bristol UCU is campaigning to change that.

Casual employment is usually associated with lower-skilled work. But at Bristol University more than half of teaching staff are on temporary, fixed or hourly-paid contracts.

The UCU union at Bristol University has launched a campaign against casual employment, as staff speak out about how the lack of long-term job security puts strain on their mental health.

This latest dispute comes after academic staff went on strike earlier this year to oppose cuts to their pensions, which was supported by students who occupied part of Senate House out of solidarity.

The university, which recorded just over 6,000 members of staff in its most recent financial accounts, last year recorded a financial surplus of £47.2m.

Living contract-to-contract

As one researcher who wished to remain anonymous told the Cable, the problems with casual contracts include “no job security, material hardship, not being able to plan your life or family, being dragged around the world”. Research by the Royal Society has shown that researchers have higher rates of mental ill health than other occupational groups.

“The problem is not you, the problem is the system”

Permanent academic positions are extremely competitive, which leads to a fear of organising and speaking out, according to associate researcher Celine Petitjean.

She told the Cable: “There’s a huge feeling of coercion for casualised people because they are afraid to talk, they feel they have to accept all kinds of demands from their superiors.

“They never feel like they can say no or ask for fair treatment because they always feel like their career – even looking just three months ahead – is on the goodwill of the person who is asking you for this hour of teaching for free, or can you do this task for free, and so on.”

Staff report having to work for free, or above their pay grade, on a regular basis. This includes unpaid field trips, or designing taught units, rather than just delivering the teaching, which requires significantly more time.

Anon, postdoc researcher in science:

“I am hopping contracts and universities. I am trying to dutifully show my motivation and my engagement to my job, but I am exhausted, and my family is exhausted. And as I age, my chances to get a permanent, or even a non-permanent position decrease, as I become ‘too expensive’.

“The universities, and not only Bristol, keep the bottleneck of employment artificially narrow, and I say artificially because they have a financial interest at doing so. And the cost is paid by us. Materially and non-materially, with high mental health issues and so on.”

“Another aspect of offering too few permanent or just proper contracts is that it increases discrimination along all axis.”

Dr Gregory Sutton, fellow in sciences after ten years as a postdoc:

“I think casualisation has a catastrophic effect on mental health of people. A recent study that came out last year found that 44% of academics have a major or minor mental health issue, which is just over twice the average percentage in the global population, and over four times what it was 45 years ago. Insomnia, depression, anxiety… It doesn’t make our department any different than anywhere else, and no one wants to say they have a problem, and everyone thinks they are alone. Casualisation means that there is a lack of support.

“A study of the Royal Society found that only 3.5% of PhD in sciences find a permanent position in academia. That is fewer than 1 in 20 Ph.D’s, and fewer than 1 in 10 post-docs. And this situation is new, 25 – 30 years ago it was nowhere near this bad. One of the side effects is that people who are struggling to find a permanent position (i.e, most people) are repeatedly told that there are defective in some way. They are repeatedly told that ‘you are the problem’, ‘you don’t have enough papers’, ‘you don’t work hard enough’, ‘you need to network more’ etc. The results are that people feel really awful, and everyone feels that they’re uniquely stupid. I think this is across academia in general… and to those struggling, I say ‘the problem is not you, the problem is the system.’”

The ‘rite of passage’ myth

Jamie Melrose, secretary of Bristol UCU and anti-casualisation officer said it was important to challenge the ‘rite of passage’ myth – that all academics must prove themselves through years of grueling temporary positions. In reality, there are far fewer permanent contracts than there are post-doc researchers for whom it would be the next stage on the career ladder.

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“The idea is that if you keep your head down and work hard it’ll be tough but in the end you’ll make it, but I think that guff is wearing a bit thin now,” he said. “Because the opportunities are simply not there and universities simply do not invest holistically in their early career staff where this type of casusalisation is focused.”

The union and university are now in the process of negotiation. A campaign at Durham University earlier this year succeeded in negotiating an end to contracts less than 12 months.

The university responded to questions regarding casual contracts and the unpaid work expected of staff with the following statement:

“As a large employer, we are committed to ensuring that our staff have terms of employment that are fair, competitive and secure. We recognise that having non-permanent work contracts is an issue with some of our staff.

“We met with Bristol UCU last week and are working together to look at ways where we can improve and are confident we can move forward on this together.”

The UCU has been campaigning on the issue UK-wide since 2016. Bristol UCU is one of the first union branches to make a claim on a local level.

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