Casualisation: a report from discussions at the WCC UK AGM


Dr. Katherine Harloe of the University of Reading reports on discussions from our AGM.

We are all aware of the problem of casualisation in UK Higher Education, as universities seek to cut costs, and respond to volatility in student numbers, by relying on fixed-term staff rather than creating open-ended posts. Many Classics Departments are presently in institutions operating non-replacement of posts for permanent staff; others have gone further and opened voluntary redundancy schemes, with compulsory redundancies actively being considered for next year.

The result of all this has been a job market with very few open-ended positions advertised, and a large number of fixed-term, and/or fractional posts – many of which flout the recently (2017) revised CUCD protocol on employment of fixed-term staff. The Universities and Colleges Union, which is running an anti-casualisation campaign, called last year for staff to take industrial action in relation to casualisation; turn-out was, however, insufficient for this to take place.

Given this context, it seemed important for the WCC UK to address the problem of casualisation in discussions at our 2019 AGM. The casualisation break-out group held a very full, urgent discussion, which could have gone on for much longer given the scale of the problem and the multiple issues and disadvantages being faced. It was particularly useful to have a mixture of those at the sharp end of casualisation (including some who have by now spent up to a decade on short-term contracts, with no end in sight); finishing PhDs contemplating the academic labour market; more senior/established staff who might be in a position to influence institutions’ policies and practices, even at a local level; and active members of UCU branch committees. 

It was agreed that the problem of casualisation has been getting worse in UK universities. Every year the jobs advertised appear to be fewer and worse in terms of working conditions/types of contract, and casualisation has clear, long-term negative effects upon individuals’ lives (including the ability to establish and maintain family life), research agendas, mental and physical health, as well as upon research cultures and the sense of academic community within and across UK Classics Departments.

Specific negative consequences of casualisation impact not only upon casualised academics themselves but also upon the undergraduates and postgraduates they teach or supervise. Since the latter are articulated less often than the former, it is worth noting that the ‘student-side’ problems noticed less often include lack of opportunities for doctoral supervision (a negative both for prospective supervisors and for prospective supervisees, if a person with particular expertise does not hold a position where they can supervise doctoral researchers); lack of continuity in lecturers and personal tutors, which can lead to lack of suitable referees when graduates are entering the job market. These all have a negative effect on ‘the student experience’ and student satisfaction; some casualised staff also feel that they are accorded less authority and/or respect, both by students and by colleagues, than staff on open-ended contracts.

A lot of the discussion centred around measures that could be taken at that level to alleviate the conditions of casualised staff, although the group recognised that bigger, structural questions need to be addressed if the UK HE sector’s ever-increasing reliance on casualised staff is to be reversed. Drawing on the experience of long-term casualised staff, we came up with a short wish-list of suggestions, in no particular order. These are addressed primarily to Heads of Department and Departmental Directors of Teaching and Learning, that could ease, even if only marginally, the lives of casualised staff

1. Pay relocation costs of staff arriving to fill temporary contracts. This is something that is almost never offered, although a few departments now require any permanent staff who are applying for research funding that includes teaching replacement to include relocation costs in their project costings, where this is an allowable expense under the scheme.

2. Aim to offer a minimum 12month contract, which includes research time/university vacation pay. Some discussion took place around the challenges faced by those who had spent a long time on fractional, teaching-only contracts in maintaining their competitiveness for contracts which included a research element, but it was felt overall that it was better to hold teaching and research together if at all possible, since this would be of greatest long-term benefit to aspiring academics.

3. Increase uniformity in application procedure/expected paperwork for temporary posts, across different UK Classics Departments. Ideal from the point of view of prospective applicants would be a single, simple, online form for all UK Classics applications; although this is probably unrealisable, it was felt that the application process could often be simplified and Classics departments could collaborate, through subject associations, to increase uniformity in some areas. The next two points also relate to this:

4. Make the eligibility criteria explicit in job advertisements and further particulars. In particular, different definitions of ‘early-career’ are used in the sector and in different institutions; this can involve a great deal of wasted effort when prospective applicants discover at a late stage that they are not in fact eligible for a particular postdoc or funding scheme. It was felt strongly that an ‘early-career researcher’ should be redefined as ‘someone who does not have a permanent academic post’.

5. When designing an application process, consider carefully what you require of candidates at each stage, and consider only taking up references, asking for research samples, etc., at point of shortlisting. It is asking a lot of candidates to expect them to produce detailed, institution-specific module plans before they have even been longlisted, and requiring references at Stage 1 increased burdens on candidates and referees. Consider whether you can long-list, or even short-list, on the basis of CV and covering letter/application form alone.

6. Offer honorary, non-stipendiary research positions after close of contract, to enable underemployed or unemployed scholars to maintain some library/electronic resources access, as well as access to academic community. A related suggestion, for WCC UK to take up, was to ask the Institute of Classical Studies to consider establishing an electronic resources/institutional email account for independent scholars who are paid-up members of Senate House Library.

7. Prioritise the needs of casualised staff when timetabling teaching. Pull out all the stops to bunch their teaching onto fewer days in order to minimise their travel costs if commuting long distances to fulfil a fractional contract (see too point 1 above)

8. Allow casualised staff, even on teaching-only contracts, access to conference expenses funding, research and development opportunities, and institutional research support (e.g. help with grant writing) that is available to staff on open-ended contracts. This is appropriate in recognition of the fact that many such staff are experienced and/or aspiring researchers who have a contribution to make beyond their immediate labour as lecturers.

Many of these recommendations correspond to those made in the openly available Council of University Classical Departments Protocol on Academic Staffing, last revised 2017. It was felt that UK Classics Departments, many of whom are CUCD members, could be more mindful of this document than they have proven to be so far.

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