The Defeat of TeachHigher through Serendipity and Strategic Alliances
by Warwick UCU Branch Committee
On 2 June 2015, management at the University of Warwick announced that “ongoing scrutiny of TeachHigher has become a distraction and TeachHigher should be disbanded”. Warwick UCU members greeted the announcement with a mixture of joy and disbelief. TeachHigher was set up as an employment agency, in all but name, to try to ameliorate the obvious problems being generated by the university’s extensive use of casualised teachers and researchers. It was disbanded before it had recruited a single worker, and the campaign against it offers some useful lessons about what it takes to persuade university management to do the right thing.
In 2013/14, the University of Warwick directly employed 2,130 academic staff on open-ended or fixed-term contracts. They also used the services of a further 2,725 “atypical” academic members of staff. None of these people had a contract of employment and many had no formal specification of what, exactly, they were being paid to do. Because these arrangements were decided by individual Heads of Department, there were huge inconsistencies and inequalities. The University argued that TeachHigher would address these deficiencies by developing “a fair, transparent and consistent approach” to the recruitment and remuneration of casual staff. Although Warwick UCU was supportive of this broader aim, we organised against TeachHigher for two reasons. Firstly, the Temporary Worker Agreement initially posted on the TeachHigher website threatened to worsen most people’s working conditions, not least by giving the university the right to dismiss them at any time without giving a reason. Secondly, we were worried that, in the longer term, TeachHigher would institutionalise the casualisation of academic work, and thereby facilitate a sector-wide expansion of this type of exploitative contract. We were particularly concerned that Warwick Employment Group, a commercial off-shoot of the University of Warwick, was intending to sell TeachHigher to other universities as a franchise, akin to Unitemps, their existing employment agency.
In Spring 2015,Warwick UCU began to organize against TeachHigher both on campus and around the country. The campaign sought to raise awareness about the negative effects TeachHigher would have on workers nationwide, and to mobilize resistance against its imminent introduction at Warwick. It was greatly helped by two instances of fortuitous timing. Firstly, the 2015 UCU Congress took place a few weeks into the campaign. This meant Congress could pass a motion opposing TeachHigher and that our two Warwick delegates could distribute flyers about an up-coming demonstration and garner support from other UCU branches up and down the country. Secondly, a University of Warwick Open Day was scheduled for two months after the start of the campaign. This gave us just enough time to work with other groups to organise a demonstration for the same day. Shortly before both events were due to take place, management decided to disband TeachHigher. The thought of an unknown number of demonstrators coming face-to-face with prospective students and their parents probably played a part in this decision. The threat of negative publicity can be a powerful lever and it was used to full advantage in this instance.
As well as capitalising on pre-existing events, we also built a wide range of strategic alliances, within and beyond the university. We worked with sessional teaching staff and full-time colleagues as well as student groups to organize across campus. As a result of this work, the Student Union passed a motion opposing TeachHigher, as did a number of academic departments. In one department, 68 people (including several professors) signed an Open Letter to the Head of Department and the Head of Administration protesting at the lack of consultation. In another department, 22 of the 23 Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) signed a letter saying they would boycott TeachHigher in the coming academic year. Some of the GTAs were UCU members; some were part of a self-organising collective called the Hourly-paid Group; some had a foot in both camps, as they put it. Solidarity doesn’t get any stronger than this.
Beyond our own institution, we worked with other groups committed to tackling casualisation, including FACE (Fighting Against Casualisation in Education). We enlisted the support of neighbouring UCU branches who publicised the demonstration and pledged to send delegates. We also drew upon the expertise of staff in the UCU Regional and National Offices. For instance, Michael MacNeil, UCU’s National Head of Bargaining and Negotiations, wrote to the VC saying it was “an issue of national importance for the whole union”. We worked with UCU’s press officers and grassroots activists to orchestrate maximum media coverage, which included articles in outlets from Times Higher Education to Vice.
We deliberately used evidence and detailed argument with just a sprinkling of speculation. Throughout, we offered two concrete alternatives, one deliberately more ambitious than the other. This gave management the opportunity to meet us half-way by agreeing to the first of our requests (“halt the pilot and engage in meaningful discussion”) but not the second (“Place hourly-paid staff on fractional contracts that give them the same pay, conditions and rights as those on open-ended contracts”).
Because of our organisational efforts and the solidarity we received from groups across the country, Teach Higher was disbanded in June. In August, we started what promises to be a series of meetings between local and regional UCU representatives, on the one hand, and the University Registrar and the Director of HR, on the other. We have also been invited to join the User Group which will provide feedback on the pilot being trialled in seven departments during 2015/16. Of course, there is still a long way to go to ensure all workers on campus receive decent wages and fair treatment but, at least, both sides are now taking steps in the right direction.
This article was submitted to UCU Head Office for inclusion in an anti-casualisation magazine to be published this year.