Warwick University’s Reliance on Fixed Term Contracts: How the Vulnerable Subsidise “Excellence with Purpose”

In 2002, UCEA agreed with the UCU that “fair and flexible employment arrangements should reflect … principles,” including the principle that  “indefinite contracts are the general form of employment relationship between employers and employees” (UCU 2002: 6).

Broadly across the UK, use of fixed term contracts in teaching and research (R&T) and teaching focused/teaching only (TF) jobs has declined, from 29% of staff performing these functions in 2004/5 to 24% in 2016/17 – the last year for which HEA data are currently available (Graph 1). (Analysis here intentionally excludes research focused/research only (RF) staff, whose fixed term contracts typically fall outside the direct responsibility of university management.)

Staffing at the University of Warwick (UoW) initially mirrored UK trends, as the percentage of staff on fixed term contracts, employed for T&R and TF functions, declined from 28% in 2004/05 to reach a low of 12% in 2012/13. However, as elsewhere in the Russell Group (8), as of 2014/15 this percentage not only grew but by 2016/17 had achieved an all-time high (since ‘digital records are available’) of 34% (Graph 2)!

Of course, it may be coincidental that this growth trend took off after the tuition fee cap was raised for the academic year 2012/13. But it is more likely that the expansion of recruitment in fixed term staff was driven and funded by the rise in fees, as UoW income from tuition and grants rose from £190 million in 2012/13 to £213 million in 2013/14, £240 million in 2014/15 and £275 million in 2015/16 (2).

The rapid rise in fixed term staff in 2015/16 mirrors a notable recovery in university gross operating surplus as well (that is, money left over after operational costs of research and teaching). The gross surplus rebounded from -2% in 2014/15 (following a dip from 3% in 2013/14 due to unexpected USS contribution increases) to a very healthy 9% in 2015/16, before further positive outcomes of 7% (2016/17) and 9% (2017/18) (2).

So while the sector as a whole has reduced its dependency on fixed term staff, the UoW appears to have used these staff to buffer changes to university funding, and to support growing student numbers (which had been on the decline since 2009/10, after the UK Parliament voted to increase the cap on fees to £9,000) (Graph 3).

Moreover, the reliance on fixed term contracts externalises the risk of taking on permanent staff, as these contracts hold open the opportunity for non-renewal and therefore free up capital for other purposes, thereby actively subsidising expansion of gross operating surplus – for which university management sets a target of 5% per annum (3). This surplus can then be prioritised for investment both in replacing and expanding infrastructure, and used to buffer future financial shocks.

Bottom line, without recourse to such high proportions of fixed term staff, the UoW would be entirely unable to  operate at anywhere near its current scale or level of academic quality and financial sustainability.

Administrators might argue that there are reasons to feel complacent about these developments. Such contracts do after all supply jobs to excellent colleagues who contribute in no small part to the overall output of university operations. Yet it’s clear that questions of collegial value take a back seat for senior decision-makers, as they ‘drive for efficiency’ (4) in pursuit of growth: “Warwick in 2030 will be larger than now, both in our student population and our research. That growth will be sustainable and will never compromise on quality” (5). By contrast, it seems little ‘accounting’ exists of the real cost to individuals working on fixed term and even more vulnerable STP contracts.

Indeed, in practical terms the ‘quality’ of experience here for these employees often brings them to tears (6). Anyone who has experienced working under fixed term conditions, or knows others who have, will be familiar with the omnipresent anxiety that intensifies as a contract nears its end. Concerns about paying the rent, repaying debts and supporting the family tend to blur into existential breakdown, growing self-doubt and an eroding sense of self-worth. Most staff will never report these worries to anyone other than their partners, often not even to work friends, given the widespread stigmatisation and discourses of those “unable to cope” – accentuated by a university culture of formal and informal completion for REF returns, promotion and general recognition. Those who suffer these experiences over repeated cycles find their personal lives coming under severe strain; in extreme cases, relationships may collapse and families must absorb the fallout.

Colleagues on permanent contracts, meanwhile, may be unaware or unconcerned that their departments have become honeycombed with precarity. They might even conclude that these legally temporary if ubquitous essentials of human resources are at least lucky enough to have some sort of job – even if they never manage to secure a pigeonhole, aren’t invited to staff meetings and don’t get a profile on the department webpages. There remains a widespread lack of awareness that without fixed term and STP staff, there would be many less permanent jobs to go around – the reality is, the security of some is subsidised by the insecurity foisted on others.

Line managers may make genuine efforts to support their staff, yet they face structural contradictions when attempting to do the decent thing. Even the best intentioned must deal with inflexible (irony noted!) university accounting cycles and resource allocation processes, while struggling to keep staffing at anything like sustainable and effective levels. They are often able to do no more than pay lip service to matters of work/life balance and mental health. Those with the right social capital may be able to free up resources by ‘talking to the Provost,’ but those without connections find themselves returning empty-handed from Academic Resourcing Committee (ARC) meetings, without the posts they need.

Warwick UCU believes that these conditions are unacceptable, full stop. But they are especially egregious in an HE sector that aspires to lead the world, and at a Russell Group university that claims to take the notion of ‘dignity at work’ seriously.

If you’re angry that casualisation has become business as usual in your workplace, we hope you’ll join our Four Fights campaign to end these conditions for vulnerable colleagues. We’re fighting to roll back the use of fixed term and vulnerable staff across UK HE; here on campus, it’s time to stop the subsidy extracted from the most vulnerable among us by Warwick University Ltd (7).

Wondering what steps to take? You can:

  1. Join the UCU right now – subscriptions are a small monthly sum, they support all our work at national and local levels, and they provide access to individual legal and case-worker support for you and others who encounter challenges at work.
  2. Contact the UCU and volunteer to take an active part in our campaign against precarity, as well as with our sister organisation the Warwick Anti-Casualization group.
  3. Show your unhappiness with the exploitative status quo by participating in our ongoing industrial action, or just by coming to talk to us on the picket line located at the bus exchange.

References

(1) Descriptive statistics generated by Warwick UCU, based on HESA 2020.

(2) Analysis by Warwick UCU, based on University of Warwick Financial Statements.

(3) UoW financial statements for the year ending 31 July 2018.

(4) Cf. UoW planning documents for the years 2014-18.

(5) UoW (2018). University Strategy: Excellence with Purpose.

(6) Cf. the testimonies collected in the #unistory project, as well as personal accounts offered by brave colleagues as part of the UCU-WAC precarity protest day, 3 March 2020.

(7) E. P. Thompson (2013). If you can’t get a copy of this foundational text from the ‘company’ library (as the record suggests, current demand is too great for the supply), this “40 years on” reflection by former students is a worthwhile 20 min read.

(8) UCU (2020). Fear of Reputational Damage.

Day 3: #Unistory, Kashmir, and lots more rain

What a day! 

The rain may not have let up, but neither did we, as the picket line continued to grow with faces new and old. Today’s picket line was adopted by PAIS and Modern Languages, which both had great showings of people, camaraderie and food.

We had an important teachout on why the situation in Kashmir is an issue for us in the UK.

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We also launched #unistory, an amazing arts project developed by artist, activist and student Julie Saumagne, where staff and students write their stories and experiences of the marketised, corporatised university, and explain why they are striking or support the strike. Add your own story when you come down to the picket line and check out our twitter feed to watch as the project unfolds. 

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Finally, we said good-bye to our beloved president, Duncan, who is off to start a new job next week. He will be sorely missed.

See you all on the picket line bright and early tomorrow morning!

Strike FAQ for Warwick students

This is information for all Warwick students who would like to know more about why lecturers, librarians, IT and other professional service staff at Warwick are taking industrial action.

For a PDF version click here.


What is the strike about
What is it we want? What would constitute a win?
Why should students care?
How does industrial action affect you?
How can Warwick students help?


What is the strike about? 

There are two reasons why we are striking:  
  • First, to protect staff pensions, which are under renewed attack after the 2018 dispute.
  • Second, to fight for the rights of casualised, female and BAME staff. Growing numbers of staff are working on short-term or precarious contracts that don’t pay them enough to make ends meet. There is also a persistent gender and racial pay gap. This means that at Warwick, for instance, women earn 74p for every £1 earned by men and BAME staff are paid an average of 25% less than their white colleagues. This action is about stopping the downgrading of pensions, ending casualisation and closing the gender and racial pay gap.

UCU Strikes Summary (PDF slides)

What is it we want? What would constitute a win? 

Our demands are simple:
  • Protect staff pensions so that we can retire without facing poverty;
  • Pay a £10/hour minimum rate for directly employed staff, and commit to the Living Wage Foundation’s pay rates for the lowest paid on campus;
  • Agree to develop a programme to close the gender and BAME pay gap; 
  • Agree to create a framework to eliminate precarious employment and to tackle rising workloads;
  • Ensure that staff pay keeps up with inflation (salaries have fallen 20% on average over the past decade)

These demands are easy to meet. We’re asking UUK (Universities UK, the association of university employers) to work with us to end the rampant levels of inequality in our workplaces and to make sure that people can actually afford to live on the pay for the jobs they do.

Why should students care? 

We know that you have incurred a large debt to attend university. Many of us fought hard against the meteoric rise of tuition fees. But the high fees you pay are not used to pay more to those who teach you. Gaps in gender and BAME pay, casualisation of staff and erosion of staff pensions are part of a decade-long assault on the integrity of universities as public institutions. As a result, we’ve seen the tripling of student fees, a trend toward short-term or sessional contracts at the expense of secure employment, the greater use of outsourcing models  and the ballooning of managerial pay – and with these developments, the persistence of racist and sexist cultures at our university.  

If we want an environment committed to fairness and transparency, where teaching, learning and research – not profit – are at the heart of what we do, then we must collectively take a stand.

How does industrial action affect you? 

Teaching and working with students is why we do this job, so we do not take strike action lightly, any more than nurses or doctors do. After eight days of strikes in November and December 2019, the UCU has called for fourteen more days of strikes in February and March: February 20-21, February 24-26, March 2-5 and March 9-13. On these days:

  • UCU members won’t be teaching, holding office hours, marking or answering emails
  • Any work missed, including teaching, will not be rescheduled
  • Since December 4th, UCU members have been observing action short of a strike (ASOS): this means working to contract, or working only the 36.5 hours per week stipulated in our contracts (most academics work 60+ hours, including weekends)

How can Warwick students help? 

In partnership with Warwick’s Student-Staff Solidarity Network, we will be holding a series of themed events on the picket lines, giving you a chance to join discussions about fees, debt, the future of work and radical alternatives to the status quo. We want you to be part of these activities. Join us! As Emma Goldman almost says, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your demonstration.”

Warwick Students Union voted to support the strikes – as individuals you can too.

If you want to help us stop hugely damaging changes to higher education, here are some ideas:

Remember: the more people support the strike, and the more unified that support, the sooner it’s likely to end.

With that in mind, please:

  • Boycott lectures and seminars on strike days – do not cross the picket line!
  • Join us as sympathetic onlookers/active supporters
  • Help organise alternative student-led events
  • Get in touch with any questions

Solidarity for all – together we can win this!

Annual General Meeting 2019

All members are invited to the branch Annual General Meeting on Wednesday 6th February 13:00 to 14:30 in S0.13 Social Sciences Building.

The provisional agenda includes:

  • Update on USS dispute – update on the work of the JEP and the current status of the dispute
  • Delegates to UCU Congress – nominations are invited for members to attend UCU congress as one of our three branch representatives.
  • Motions from members – please email motions to administrator@warwickucu.org.uk
  • Solidarity with the SU – discussion on creation and adoption of a joint Warwick UCU / SU statement on shared goals
  • Donations to FE strike fund – we would like to make a donation to the FE strike fund and ask members to support this
  • Local subscriptions – discussion and vote on adopting a more progressive and fairer local subscription rate.

Response to the early re-instatement of ‘group chat’ students

We wish to express our dismay at the recent University of Warwick decision to reduce the suspension period of two of the students responsible for a ‘group chat’ that included racist, sexist and homophobic language and threats, directed toward their peers.

As a branch, Warwick UCU is committed to defending the right of students, our members, and other staff to study and work without fear of harassment, bullying, or discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation, in line with the Equality Act 2010. As when the incident first occurred, we believe this to be both a student issue and a workplace issue. The prospect of sharing a classroom and other university spaces with individuals who would so unabashedly express such violent views about their peers is deeply troubling for students and staff alike.

While we appreciate the confidential nature of disciplinary proceedings and that there may be factors in this decision that are beyond our knowledge, we nonetheless believe this outcome seriously compromises the University’s commitment to ensuring a safe learning and working environment that values equality and diversity. It undermines the Dignity at Warwick policy. It also profoundly diminishes our faith in the University to appropriately deal with incidents of this nature and to put the best interests of those being targeted first. More specifically, we believe it is unacceptable that the students in question will be allowed to return to campus before those who were harmed by this incident have finished their studies.

Furthermore, the University’s response to the widespread concern with this decision has so far been inadequate. While we appreciate that the University has made it abundantly clear that it does not condone the actions of these students, we believe more must be done to create transparency and restore confidence in the University. The suggestion that those who are concerned seek support from Wellbeing Services does nothing to acknowledge the systemic nature of this and related issues, while also transferring responsibility for this injustice onto individuals.  

We believe the University must respond not only with public statements but with actions by appointing an inclusive commission to review the University’s policies on harassment, bullying and discrimination, as well as on the disciplinary procedure itself. We feel that an open conversation on the defects in a university culture which allows for such situations to arise is urgently necessary.

Finally, we wish to extend our continued support to the students who were immediately affected by this incident and who continue to experience its impact in their lives. We admire the strength and courage of those who have come forward to make the outcome of this appeal public knowledge.

Warwick UCU

 

Extraordinary General Meeting – April 19

The USS consultation closed last Friday and 64% of those returning ballots (in a turnout of 63%) voted to accept the UUK’s offer.

We will be holding a post-ballot Extraordinary General Meeting on Thursday 19th April, 12:00 – 13:30, in P5.21A/B Physics in order to discuss future developments and how we should respond as a branch.

As such the agenda is open but based around some of these questions (and structured as below) – how can we build on the strength of action showed during the USS strikes? How best to pursue the defence of our pensions? What are our other priorities for the coming period and how can we address these?

  1. What next? Following the ‘yes’ vote – timelines for UCU, UCU negotiators, the proposed joint expert panel etc.
  2. Developing the branch – Departmental Contacts, Caseworkers, Communications Strategy (for more information please see the all member email).
  3. Strike debrief, and preparation for potential future strike action.
  4. Pay deductions, incidences of pressure from HoD’s to reschedule and other strike breaking activities.

This is also an opportunity to bring forward Branch motions.

Update: We have received a member-led motion that we will circulate to all members asap.

Day 4 Strike for Pensions

Great to have support from Coventry TUC on this bitterly cold morning. Staff student solidarity continues on a day when we find out if UUK are serious about reopening negotiations.Despite the lack of snow, we had to resort to keeping moving to stay warm.

We were joined by some lovely furry friends, Percy and QuinceDuncan Adam, vice president commented “UUK should realise that meaningful negotiation needs to resume or these strike days will continue. We’ve had a 4th well attended day and we know that, as well as giving their support in person, members are staying away. “

Gone but Not Forgotten: Absent Friends in Life Science and Warwick Medical Schools

Nearly two years ago, management announced that there was to be a whole-scale review of the School of Life Sciences, followed by a whole-scale review of Warwick Medical School. Allegedly, these two departments had failed to generate enough income and staffing costs were to be dramatically reduced. The most shocking aspect of the proposal from UCU’s point of view was the university’s insistence that academic staff should be sacked on the basis of a single financial metric (research grant income) and that this measure should be applied retrospectively for the previous four-year period.

Over 2,000 people signed an online petition[1] calling on the Vice-Chancellor to abandon this “very radical approach” because it was “profoundly damaging to academic life and the quality of research at the University of Warwick”. Did management listen to any of form of dissent or counter-argument? Seemingly not. The review went ahead exactly as intended, and nearly 40 members of staff left the university, including a number of highly-skilled professional staff.

For sure, the university needs to exercise proper financial oversight. We’d be the first to complain if our salaries weren’t paid. BUT, it is unethical and counter-productive to value an academic’s contribution solely in terms of grant income, without reference to any other aspect of their job description. And it is doubly heinous to do so retrospectively. We would like to think that Warwick will never repeat what can only be described as a new low in its treatment of staff.

The picture shows Warwick UCU President, Dr. Justine Mercer, presenting the petition to the Deputy Registrar. We were denied permission to present it directly to the Vice-Chancellor, though we understand it will be reported to Steering and Council.

[1]  The full text of the online petition read:

The University of Warwick is currently undertaking a series of redundancy exercises predicated on the notion that successful grant applications are the key measure of performance and value for research staff.  This is a very radical approach, not widely adopted in the sector, and we believe it is profoundly damaging to academic life and the quality of research at the University of Warwick.  We, the undersigned, call on the Vice-Chancellor to end this damaging and dangerous practice.

UCU Petition
Warwick UCU President, Dr. Justine Mercer, presenting the petition to the Deputy Registrar.

Supporting the Junior Doctors Strike on Wednesday 27 April

Warwick UCU branch sends solidarity to the junior doctors today and tomorrow.

We will be coming along to the picket line at Warwick Hospital ( Warwick Hospital, Lakin Road, Warwick CV34 5BW ) at 08:30 tomorrow morning to show our support in person. As university workers busy resisting the destructive measures proposed by the government Higher Education Green Paper, we are inspired by your actions.

In both education and the NHS we know that protecting working conditions is also about protecting the rights of students and patients and defending our public services for everybody.

Press Release – Friday 11th March 2016 Warwick Assembly

University of Warwick assembly passes motions to condemn Higher Education Green Paper and to do no more than the absolute ‘minimum legal obligation’ to satisfy Prevent

Today a democratic Assembly called by staff at the University of Warwick passed two motions, one condemning Jo Johnson’s Higher Education Green Paper and the second requiring the University do no more than the absolute legal minimum to satisfy the Home Office’s Prevent program.

Green Paper

Speaking for the first motion, Dr. Laura Schwartz, Assistant Professor in Modern British History, stated that “this Green Paper is potentially the death knell of public higher education in this country”, directly threatening the University’s core educational mission.

The ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF), colloquially described as the ‘Tuition Escalation Framework’, had been torn apart by Warwick’s own consultation submission as being potentially “damaging to the international reputation of our universities”.

Complaints included the possibility of academic rigor being sacrificed in order to promote higher student satisfaction and the burdening of students with unsustainable levels of debt thanks to rising tuition. Dr. Schwartz highlighted that opposition to the Green Paper has been widespread, including the Vice Chancellors at Cambridge, Oxford and other Russell Group institutions.

Prevent

The second motion targeted the Government’s Prevent program which requires University staff to report students they believed to be at risk of ‘radicalisation’, an instruction that has already led to the disproportionate and discriminatory targeting of Muslim and Black and Minority staff and students.

The motion under vote called on the Vice Chancellor to conduct meaningful consultation on prevent, in advance of its April 2016 submission to HEFCE. Experts on counter-terror legislation, policy and practice, voiced their discontent at the insidious nature of the confused prevent policy which had the potential to stifle academic freedom, while contradicting requirements under both the Human Rights and Education Acts.

The Assembly noted the widespread opposition to the policy on campus, with hundreds of University staff and students having signed an open letter to the Vice Chancellor in just over three weeks. The Assembly resolved to make sure that the University did no more than the absolute minimum to satisfy the requirements of Prevent.

As Dr. Jusine Mercer, Associate Professor in the Centre for Education Studies, noted: “The Prevent strategy… damages our community by fostering an environment of surveillance, paranoia and racism. It encourages the continual monitoring of both staff and students. It destroys the trust needed for a safe and supportive learning environment.”

The mood in the Assembly was overwhelmingly supportive of both motions with members of staff from across the university noting the ways in which the changes threaten the University’s public mission, and undermine academic freedom.

The Assembly at Warwick fits into a larger pattern of mobilization against the Green Paper and Prevent occurring at higher education institutions around the country.

Staff coming leaving the assembly were greeted by students who had gathered in solidarity. Both claim that the successful assembly is an important step in support for further action locally and nationally. Warwick for Free Education spokesperson, Hope Worsdale commented that “students are delighted by the outcome of the Assembly, and will continue in their actions alongside staff, to campaign for a free and progressive education system.”

Further information and background on the Green Paper:

Further information and background on Prevent