Students in a classroom at Utrecht University (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, casualisation, Coronavirus, Higher Education, job market, teaching

Covid-19: curse or opportunity?

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 4: teaching.

Covid-19. A curse, or an opportunity to change the endemic casualisation of higher education?

It’s no secret that the UK’s higher education system heavily depends on temporary staff. I’m sure you’ve all had to plough through job offers to find anything that wasn’t a ‘part-time’, ‘fixed-term’, or ‘zero hours’ contract.

A survey conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) in early 2019 estimated that “around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the [higher education] sector remain on fixed-term contracts”, whereas 37,000 teaching staff was found to be on fixed-term, hourly paid contracts (p. 3).

And these are only the official numbers: a further 71,000 – again, mostly hourly paid – teachers are apparently employed as ‘atypical academics’ but without being counted in the main staff record. UCU also estimated that “most universities rely on hourly paid staff to deliver around 25% of their undergraduate teaching” (p. 8).

What is perhaps most disconcerting is that this situation involves some of the most prestigious universities in the country: “In 2016/17 there were 71,960 atypical academics employed in UK universities, 50% of whom were employed in the ‘elite’ Russell Group of universities” (p. 7).

Needless to add that these atypical academics included many PhD students. In fact, there’s a real hunt for casual workforce in higher education, and PhD students seem to be the easiest prey, eager as they are to gain teaching experience and, hey, who knows, maybe even get a foot in the door. Money is also an issue, especially for unfunded students.

As much as I support the idea of offering students the opportunity to gain teaching experience during their PhD, most of the time it only reflects a department’s need to resolve structural problems. This is hardly good for its stability and continuity, and potentially damaging for the PhD students, who will likely find themselves struggling to complete their PhD within the set timeframe.

Universities also don’t always give PhD students proper training before they enter the classroom, which can impact on the quality of  teaching, and potentially on the students’ self-esteem.

Last but not least, allowing only some PhD students within a department to teach can create hierarchies between students, with some having access to an office while others are forced to roam computer rooms and libraries in search for a study space.

This can be highly exclusionary. I didn’t teach during my PhD, and had no access to office space or staff printing services. When I once had to ask a fellow PhD student and teaching assistant for the printer/copier code (to assist a conference attendant), she snobbishly walked off to make the photocopies herself. The thought that she was worried I might make improper use of her code deeply saddened me.

Early career researchers are another easy target. I had to teach up to 5 hours per week as part of a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship. I won’t say I was exploited, but I did spend a hell lot more than 5 hours on my teaching: course design and preparation, exam supervision, oral examinations, marking, honours supervision, feedback forms – it was a lot more than I had bargained for! By way of expressing gratitude, the department eventually forgot to mention me in a list of recently departed staff, in a School Newsletter published shortly after my fellowship ended. As if I’d never been there.

If this is the status quo, then just imagine the situation now, with the Coronavirus raging across the globe. What has been a long-term problem is now exploding in everyone’s face. Permanent staff is forced to shift to online teaching or being furloughed, something that isn’t guaranteed though for casual workers on short-term or zero hours contracts.

The universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex set a sad record in this perspective, as they made staff on fixed-term contracts redundant, or simply did not renew their employment.

The crisis is also affecting young researchers, with funding schemes or job vacancies being cancelled “due to Covid 19”, for example. Fortunately not all funding bodies resort to these extreme measures: the British Academy has just published its call for BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants 2020-21, extending the latest project start date in order to provide flexibility in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is difficult to predict how this will all work out. Some universities seem to be taking on a more responsible attitude, and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has just announced that funded doctoral students who have been impacted by Covid-19 will receive an extension to their research with additional grants, to complete their studies by 31 March 2021. There are also various petitions calling for more sustained support of casual workers (here’s one from the @CoronaContract).

Obviously the emergency situation requires immediate action, which may not have a long-term impact. Still, if the academic community manages to keep the pressure on government and institutions way beyond the crisis, perhaps Covid-19 could have some positive outcomes as well.

In the meantime…maybe it would be an idea to set up a platform (a blog, a webpage) where people can post their experiences of cancelled job interviews, funding schemes, and so on. It might give a clearer indication of the vastness of the problem, and perhaps offer a starting point for a nationwide campaign against the endemic casualisation of higher education in the long run.

***

More reading:

After the pandemic: re-imagining our universities (Medium)

Lecturers went on strike over insecure jobs – now we fear coronavirus cuts (Guardian)

Managing research risks – riding the wave of #phdpandemic (by Pat Thomson)

Students in a classroom at Utrecht University (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Students in a classroom at Utrecht University (photo by Andrea Hajek)

***

Previous post about teaching:

Lest we drown in student feedback