Exeter UCU are asking university senior management for a full of review of working practices.
Exeter’s branch of the University and College Union launched a campaign on Friday (13 September) to combat insecure staff contracts, with national UCU General Secretary Jo Grady in attendance.
Branch Vice-President and anti-casualisation lead Rhian Keyse outlined the union’s demands, which were submitted to the university as a formal claim later on Friday. The branch’s claim cites Exeter as having the eighth-highest employment insecurity ranking among UK universities, with 58% of its academic workforce employed on casual or fixed-term contracts. Keyse noted that her teaching time is scheduled to start on Monday 16 September but she has not yet received a formal contract of employment from the university.
The branch’s claim cites Exeter as having the eighth-highest employment insecurity ranking among UK universities
Exeter UCU’s claim has nine key demands, which include an end to unpaid class preparation time, addressing ‘worker contracts’ (zero-hours contracts ‘in all but name’, according to Keyse), and a review of the restrictions on working hours for postgraduate students. The union are also requesting that all staff gain access to facilities such as telephones, computers, and office space, with Keyse citing how lack of these leads to staff being required to meet students in coffee shops or provide them with their personal phone numbers. Keyse noted the UCU’s desire to see university funds spent on staff wages rather than infrastructure developments: ‘The student experience is about people and not buildings.’
Attendees also heard from Guild Vice President for Postgraduates, Sunday Blake, on her work to increase communication between the two unions. Blake highlighted the Guild’s in-progress Know Your Rights campaign, which she says aims in particular to aid working class students who may be especially vulnerable to insecure contracts.
‘[The student] voice is disproportionately loud‘
UCU General Secretary Jo Grady stressed the importance of grassroots campaigning in improving the national picture on anti-casualisation. She stressed that more securely-employed senior staff must show solidarity with the campaign, noting that ‘precarity and casualization trickle up’.
Asked what students can do to support anti-casualisation, Grady highlighted the power they have to influence the discussion. ‘[The student] voice is disproportionately loud. I think for students, it’s important to remember that the working conditions of their teachers are their learning conditions.’
She suggests students use their SSLCs to hold the university accountable for staff welfare: ‘Ask [your] department, how many of our teachers are employed on casualised contracts? What do you do to ensure that they’re paid on time? Be proactive in asking those questions because it can be really difficult for people employed casually to do it. Because they know that if they raise concerns, they might not get that employment again next year.’
Keyse asks students to show solidarity with their lecturers: ‘Make some noise about this. Speak to senior members of staff and say that you are concerned about working conditions. You guys are paying over £9000 a year in tuition fees – very little of that seems to be trickling into the pockets of most of the people teaching you. So, ask questions, be curious and show solidarity with your seminar tutors. And support [a] strike if it happens, be on the picket line with us.’
The push for anti-casualisation gained more attention following the national UCU strikes in spring 2018. A UCU ballot on further strike action, alongside another on pay, workloads and equality, opened at 69 institutions including Exeter on Monday 9 September.
A University of Exeter spokesperson said:
“Building on joint work in the 2018/19 academic year, the University of Exeter has advised the University and College Union (UCU) that we are keen to work with them on the important issues they raise on short and fixed term contracts with an open offer to develop a joint approach.
“The figures quoted by the UCU on ‘casual’ contracts includes anyone working on a very short term basis to undertake marking or teaching which comprises around 4.5% (85.0 FTE) of our total academic workforce.
“We share the UCU’s desire to provide the best possible job security and financial stability to everyone who works at the University of Exeter and together we have made good progress in recent years. This includes from August 2018 paying the Living Wage to casual workers benefiting several hundred people and the introduction in 2018/19 of new contract arrangements for postgraduate students working as teachers.
“In the coming months, we will continue to seek to work with UCU and our post-graduates to get the right balance between flexible working, supporting post-graduate study and improving contracts of work.”