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Marketisation of universities has led to an education crisis

Higher education staff are now regarded as ‘throwaway’ and are increasingly overworked and demoralised. RUTH HUNT reports

SINCE 2010, higher education has been subjected to increased marketisation. 

The University and College Union (UCU) has highlighted how some highly qualified academics who would normally have a job “for life” might find their remuneration has been changed to fixed-term, or to payment on an hourly basis with no protection to make plans for the future. 

So how do these changes to contract affect staff and in turn impact on students?

Dr Philip Baldwin*, a senior lecturer at one of the leading universities, said this insecurity in teaching has always been a feature, but he added: “It’s got massively worse since 2010, as universities think only short-term, and vice-chancellors look to save money in every possible way. Teaching is always the first thing to suffer in universities.”

The report by the UCU found that 6,500 university lecturers are on zero-hours contracts, and 68,845 do not have a secure contract. 

As a vocational profession, the treatment of these academics implies a massive casualisation of the workforce, and the wholesale marketisation of higher education. 

“Universities often live on a cliff-edge, and only plan short-term, based on how many students they recruit for a particular course that particular year,” Baldwin said. 

“If a course doesn’t recruit as well one year, there are often threats of pulling the course or redundancy. Casualisation means that universities can just appoint according to how many students need teaching in a particular year. It’s a failure of planning and a failure of any duty of care.” 

This means higher education has become a highly stressful sector, with some staff treated relatively well, while the rest are not. 

“Hourly staff are treated by HR and the institutions as ‘throwaway’,” said Baldwin. 

“In fact, universities often terminate all contact as soon as a contract runs out. I’ve seen all sorts of sharp practices. 

“For example, where a university HR department purposely made all of its hourly paid staff redundant in the summer, to avoid any EU law about continuous service coming into play. 

“There’s also a kind of ongoing ‘torture’ with some hourly paid staff where, year on year, they’re promised the possibility of a permanent contract, which never materialises. A kind of vanishing horizon.”

The danger here is of a hierarchy between staff members, Baldwin said, with hourly staff seen by overworked colleagues as a way of “plugging gaps” in teaching that they can’t manage. 

This means some incredibly talented teachers are often just there to cover a course and aren’t even consulted regarding the contents of the course.
 
As we have seen in the NHS and other sectors it isn’t simply those with a teaching post who are getting a raw deal. 

“I know that in many universities administrative staff are treated even worse,” Baldwin said. 

“They are made to move roles much more than they used to and the jobs are often temporary or on a casual basis.” 

Baldwin and his colleagues have noted the sharp contrast between what happened in the past when administrators were often much more closely aligned with academic departments which had a measure of independence. 

This meant that administrators and academics often worked closely together, at least at a departmental level. 

Now administration and academic staff often work at cross purposes in universities and there’s a real top-down feel about the management. 

Women who are on hourly contracts are negatively affected, with no maternity pay or holiday pay. 

Their role, like everyone else paid on an hourly basis, is a purely financial arrangement with no “give” in the system for protection due to personal circumstances that may arise.

This overall situation can mean some of those affected seek teaching jobs abroad. In particular, Baldwin has noticed younger colleagues and PhD students leaving.

With students now paying over £9,000 for just an undergraduate degree, how much has this affected them during their time at university?

One knock-on impact of using casual, hourly paid staff to plug gaps in teaching which may last a full year is that continuity is lost. 

The other problem Baldwin stressed was the potential of student support being at risk as the tutors only receive pay for their teaching hours, meaning they can’t provide any help that isn’t directly to do with the course. 

Despite the situation staff face, Baldwin said that in terms of value for money, “I think university teaching staff — both hourly paid and permanent — often work well beyond the call of duty. 

“A lot of lecturers I know really care about the students and teaching, despite the rubbish that gets printed in the press about them. 

“They work hard, care for the students and love the teaching. And there’s a lot of good work going on in universities.

“The ‘value for money’ argument in terms of student loans is flawed,” Baldwin argued, “as most lecturers — certainly at my level — also feel strongly that the fees shouldn’t be paid by the students, but by the government. What happened with student fees under the coalition government changed everything.” 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Universities need to understand this is a real problem that must be dealt with, not excused or underplayed. Some institutions have worked with us to move staff on to more secure contracts, but overall the higher education sector is too happy to exploit its army of casualised staff.
 
“We need to have an honest conversation about casualisation that draws out the real extent of the problem and how we can secure improvements for staff. 

“The Office for Students should demand that universities disclose the extent of teaching — measured in classroom hours — that is being done by casualised staff. Students would be shocked by the levels of casualisation in universities and the toll that being in insecure employment takes on people.”
 
By turning higher education into a competitive marketplace, the Tories had hoped it would naturally build up standards and increase choice and value for money for students.

Instead, as we have seen, due to changes in contracts it can lead to overworked, demotivated staff, less continuity for the students, hierarchies between colleagues and talented lecturers leaving the country.

Ruth F Hunt is an author and freelance journalist.

*Name changed to protect identity.

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