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Education Politics

The University of Nottingham and the Return of the Precarious Workers

For students at the University of Nottingham, Monday 21st September was the first day of term. For many precariously employed members of staff it was yet another day of uncertainty. But it was also a day in which precarious workers and students were present and organised on campus, as they called on the University to stop job cuts, end casualisation and outsourcing, and adopt fair forms of employment for all.

Precarious Staff, Casualisation, Cuts and COVID

What do we mean by precarious staff and casualisation? We mean staff who are in insecure and often low-paid forms of employment which leave them constantly vulnerable to the risk of losing their job, hours of work, and ability to earn enough to get by. By casualisation,we mean the proliferation of forms of employment which lack the formal protections and conditions that secure, permanent workers enjoy, leaving people in precarious positions. These sorts of casualised, precarious jobs are also frequently occupied by a disproportionately high number of migrants, women, and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) workers.

Many precarious workers at the University of Nottingham aren’t even officially “employees” at all. Instead they are outsourced via the temporary work agency  UniTemps. The University has a long history of casualising jobs across campus in order to drive down workers’ pay and conditions, even whilst increasing tuition fees have meant rising profits. As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, so did some of the stark realities of casualisation.

Anticipating a drop in student numbers in the 2020/21 academic year, and therefore a drop in revenue, the University announced large budget cuts which fell heavily on precarious staff. Having worked hard to transfer teaching online, many teachers were told they would no longer be needed. For hourly paid outsourced workers, or those on short fixed-term contracts, their jobs could be got rid of easily, leaving them without income during a global pandemic. They were told this was because the University needed to save money, and that it was a necessity to cut these lower paid jobs. But recent information gathered on University salaries tells a very different story. Based on figures from the 2019/20 academic year, if the top 76 earners at the University decided to cap their basic salaries at £90k a year, it would provide a saving which alone would represent over double the amount of money the University spends in total on the wages of hourly paid teaching staff in a year[1].

Yet many Postgraduate Researchers and hourly paid teachers were told directly that the budget for their paid work had to be cut entirely. Workers across the University came face to face with these contradictions. In the Faculty of Social Sciences for example, while some hourly paid and fixed term teaching staff were told they would likely not be needed this year, one School in the Faculty emailed their PhD candidates encouraging them to volunteer to do unpaid teaching work “for experience and to improve CVs”. Not only was this in complete contravention of the Principles for Teaching Affiliates the Anti-Casualisation campaign had won the previous year, it also revealed the University’s priorities: not students, staff or education, but profit. The University sought to increase student numbers while cutting back on the staff who teach and keep campuses running. This has meant increasing workloads and stress for the workers that remain while coercing others to work for free. Job cuts and casualisation undermine staff and seriously damage education, hence our slogan, working conditions are learning conditions.

At the beginning of this new academic year student numbers are up and the full student experience has been promised to all. This is primarily because Universities want students’ tuition fees, and because Halls of Residence and private landlords want students’ rent money. But the University simply cannot operate without its many and various precarious workers, those very people who create and maintain the education and University surroundings which are then commodified and sold. So gradually management has started to offer a few of the same forms of casualised work again. The Faculty of Arts, which informed all its Teaching Affiliates back in April that the budget for their work had been cut entirely, emailed the same people in September to inform them that “all Teaching and Research Affiliate opportunities will be advertised and recruited through Unitemps, from September 2020”, reasserting their commitment to outsourcing. Some of the same jobs we were told were not needed, and some of those same workers that were made disposable, are now in demand once more. The University expects the same casualised forms of work to be accepted.But the return of the precarious workers has meant the return of organised workers.

We are UoN

Alongside others we have called on the University to safeguard the jobs of all staff, this means continuing to post job advertisements for recurring hourly paid roles and cancelling any planned contract terminations or fixed-term redundancies. We have also called for an end to casualisation and outsourcing, and for fair forms of secure employment for all workers across campus. This is because we refuse to accept a University where commodified education is sold to students in the interests of inflated executive pay and profiteering institutions. We demand a University run in the interest of workers and students.

On the first day of term we were present on campus. While lockdown rules may have restricted official trade union action, workers and students organised autonomously to make their demands heard. The reaction this organised presence provoked on the day highlighted some significant antagonisms. While the student population seemed largely sympathetic towards the precarious University workers, their representatives from the Students’ Union were not, and attempted to police the action off campus by insisting that people had not gone through the correct channels to plan an “event”. Activists were asked to reveal what organisations they were part of, and who had officially called and planned the demonstration, while also being told not to distribute any materials. Other members of University staff were seen taking pictures of those who were present, and eventually campus security were alerted to keep a watchful eye.

This antagonism shed light on some important contradictions. The Student Union, as students sole representative body, has been co-opted into a position where it is stage managing an experience promised and sold by the University, which, as COVID outbreaks are already occurring all over campus (although notably not being reported by management), is doomed to failure. Unfortunately, students have been set up for a fall, and their union appears to have been neutralised, instead adopting an institutional position of co-managing student experience. This partnership with University management, and between the Vice Chancellor of SU Officers, means as a union it is not willing to take an oppositional stance to the University, and therefore has not officially backed the Anti-Casualisation campaign.

As term slowly begins, Heads of School and Faculty across the University are exchanging emails and battling with teaching staff and union representatives over attempts to compel staff into face to face teaching. It is no wonder health and safety plays heavy on some SU officials’ minds, anxious as they are to avoid blame. However, the workers and students protesting on the first day of term were in small socially distanced groups, all wearing masks, distributing leaflets with protective gloves and with hand sanitizer made available to all, including passers-by. The University on the other hand was encouraging students back into cramped Halls, Mooch, Portland coffee, and shops. On the second day of term, rather than organised workers gathering at the top of Portland steps, there were Domino’s Pizza branded marquees stacked with marketing material and special deals.

But the fight continues, and already the pressure exerted by workers and students from below is showing. In a virtual “Town Hall Meeting” meeting with researchers and teachers in June the Deputy Vice-Chancellor was forced to rule out the possibility that Postgraduate Researchers could be used as free labour to plug the leaks caused by cuts in paid teaching jobs. Fears over casualised staff being used as cannon fodder for face to face teaching in COVID compromised surroundings led to demands which resulted in the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Student Experience conceding that hourly paid staff would be entitled to equal treatment in policies surrounding the safe return to teaching work. But these small gains mean little if they are not defended by organised workers on the ground, and it is only through further action that we will go on to not only defend jobs, but vastly improve the conditions of work across the University.

This will require solidarity among all students and workers, precarious and permanent. It is in no one’s interest to have working and learning conditions undermined by casualisation. When permanent staff had their pensions attacked, many precarious teaching staff joined their picket lines to defend them. That solidarity must now run both ways, and words must become action. Where possible, all staff should refuse increasing workloads produced as a result of redundancies and job losses, and permanent staff should not only dissuade, but openly oppose the use of unpaid work where they see it being exploited from precarious staff and researchers. As teaching staff fight management for safe working conditions, they must also be prepared to stand in solidarity with those on the front line too: cleaners, caterers, hospitality and campus staff. As the campaign against cuts and casualisation progresses, there are lots of ways students and workers can get involved, and further action will inevitably be required. Equally, all workers will need to stand in solidarity with students as Government and Universities attempt to blame them for the mismanagement of COVID-19. Beyond this, the current situation also provides an opportunity to make significant leaps forward, to exceed our previous defensive positions and utilise current ruptures to demand more. Demands that refuse to be integrated into the University’s market logic of what is possible. The fight against job losses, casualisation and outsourcing is part of a much bigger common struggle, towards ending the marketisation of the University and the commodification of education. It is us, the workers and students, who are the University. It is only our collective strength, solidarity, and organised struggle which can form the material basis on which to bring about a completely new form of education, one that is ours.

Contact us:  NottsUniWorker@gmail.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NottsUniWorkers

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/NottsUniWorkers

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