Casualisation, Contracts, and Crisis: The University in the early 21st Century

Interviews conducted and written by Jamie Gemmell.

From the University of Edinburgh’s various prospective student webpages, you would conclude that teaching lay at the heart of the institution. In their words, Edinburgh offers “world-class teaching” and is “always keen to develop innovative approaches to teaching.” Whilst the quality of Edinburgh’s teaching may not be in doubt, it is apparent that, judging by the way the institution treats staff, teaching is near the bottom of the university’s priorities. Over the past few months I have conducted interviews with Dr. Tereza Valny (Teaching Fellow in Modern European History), Dr. Megan Hunt (Teaching Fellow in American History), Dr. Kalathmika Natarajan (Teaching Fellow in Modern South Asian History), and Professor Diana Paton (William Robertson Professor of History). This piece aims to give voice to some of their experiences, putting a face to some of the more opaque problems raised by the ongoing industrial dispute between the UCU and Universities UK.

Three of my interviewees are “Teaching Fellows,” a position frequently defined by its contractual vagueness. On the surface, this short-term position is designed to provide opportunities for early career scholars, with an emphasis is on teaching and other student-facing activities. Often, the role is financed when a permanent member of staff acquires a large research grant. Theoretically, it’s a win-win: a more senior scholar can dedicate more time to their research, whilst a more junior scholar can gain some of the necessary skills and experience required for a permanent position. The reality is very different. In Dr. Valny’s words, the Teaching Fellowship is “extremely exploitative and really problematic.” In her experience, it meant being “plunged into an institution” to run modules and “figure[ing] it out as you go along.” Similarly, Dr. Natarajan referred to the contract as “precarious.” She finds the contractual obligations “so overwhelming, that I often … need a bit of a break,” leaving her unable to conduct research in her, unpaid, spare time. 

One of the primary issues around the Teaching Fellowship is the workload. Whilst Dr. Hunt’s contract stipulates that she should be working around twenty-nine to thirty hours per week, in reality she works “easily double that.” If she doesn’t have “specific plans on a weekend” she “will work.” Even then, she remains in a “cycle where you never quite get on top of it.” Dr. Natarajan puts it a bit more diplomatically, suggesting that her hours “definitely stretch more than the average work week.” Under the department’s carefully calibrated workload framework, five hours of one-on-one time are given to each tutorial group for a whole semester and forty minutes for a typical undergraduate essay – that includes engaging with work, writing up feedback, and discussing it with the student. Obviously, this is not sufficient. Dr. Hunt concludes that if she worked the hours laid out by the workload framework, her classes “would be turning up and saying let’s have a chat.” Even as a Professor, these issues do not fall away. Whilst working to contract as part of the UCU industrial action this term, Professor Paton has been able to spend much less time preparing for teaching than she normally would, only “scanning over primary sources” and “relying on long-term knowledge” when it comes to the secondary literature. By focusing on quantifying time so precisely, the institution has failed students completely, relying on the goodwill of the University’s employees. It hardly reflects a desire to introduce “innovative approaches” to teaching. 

With workloads so high, it is common for early career scholars to become trapped in teaching positions. Advancement in the sector relies on putting together a strong research portfolio – that means articles in highly regarded journals and respected book publications. As one of the University’s primary sources of income is research funding, scholars with reputable research backgrounds are crucial. However, Teaching Fellowships, by their very nature, stipulate little to no time to research. When I asked Dr. Natarajan how many hours she dedicated to research she laughed and said, “absolutely none.” Despite developing many of her key ideas through her teaching, Dr. Valny has never had the “space to take those ideas” and transform them into a book proposal. This can lead to anxiety and stress. Dr. Natarajan’s PhD is “constantly at the back of my mind,” yet she rarely finds significant time to transform the piece into a monograph. Without the adequate time allocated to research, these scholars can never advance. Dr. Valny, rather depressingly, concludes that if she continues within a Teaching Fellowship she will become “unemployable” in any other position. With her contract expiring in August this year, it appears that this possibility could become a reality. Her situation reflects a broader problem where staff dedicated to their students and teaching are not rewarded for their work.

The emphasis on research has led to pernicious discourses that have devalued teaching, further demoralising many early career scholars who find themselves ensnared in these roles. In contrast to her time in Prague, where she was rewarded for producing popular courses (although still employed only temporarily), Dr. Valny finds herself suffering from feelings of “imposter syndrome” and “guilt, or inadequacy” when confronted with suggestions that she need only apply for research grants to escape her role. For Dr. Hunt, being “respected for what I already do quite well,” would be more appreciated. She claims that “institutionally it (teaching) doesn’t matter.” By being “a good teacher,” she has risked her career being “put on hold, if not completely stalled.” Similarly, Dr. Natarajan has found her teaching being treated as “a side-line” or a “side-note” to research. Performative professionalism has often defined these scholars’ teaching approaches, hiding an institution that disregards teaching and actively encourages academics to move away from teaching. This is despite some Teaching Fellows, such as Dr. Valny, accepting that a permanent teaching position would be “actually fine.”

These issues around workloads and casualisation intersect with the brutal policies of the Home Office, frequently referred to as the “hostile environment.” Home Office regulations stipulate that only “highly-skilled migrants” can live and work here, meaning those on short term contracts face another level of instability. For Dr. Natarajan, this has been a major source of precariousness. Dr. Natarajan can “only stay as long as I have a job or, rather only as long as I have a visa and the visa depends on my job.” If Dr. Natarajan or her husband fail to secure another job, after their current contracts expire, they risk deportation. Within the sector more broadly, advertisements for short term jobs often assert that only those with a pre-existing right to reside can apply. This issue throws cold water over criticism that stereotypes strikers as middle-class whites. Demonstrably scholars of colour, often, in the words of Dr. Natarajan “have their own very different set of precarious circumstances.” 

Many of these issues reflect deeper structural problems within the higher education sector.  Scholars frequently cited the removal of the student cap and increase in tuition fees, reforms from 2010, as exacerbating pre-existing issues and transforming education into a commodity. Dr. Natarajan has suggested that the university has become a “business venture,” whilst Professor Paton claims that there was an “almost instant” change in the way students and management conceptualised higher education after 2010. Over the years, under Professor Paton’s analysis, this “quantitative increase has become a qualitative change,” putting pressure on staff and students. Despite student numbers and tuition fees increasing, Dr. Hunt suggests that “the service that people are paying” for is not being provided. Rather, money flows into marketing and big projects that elevate the positions of senior management figures.

The university sector appears to have reached a tipping point. On a micro level, staff are under increasing pressure, with workloads increasing and casualisation becoming more widespread. A two-tier system has developed, with early career scholars expected to teach more and research less. Goodwill and professionalism appear to be the only things preventing university teaching coming to a standstill. On a macro level, the sector has become partially commercialised with fees privatised and universities encouraged to compete for students. This has occurred without a concomitant provision of consumer rights, leaving students forced to accept higher levels of debt without safeguards in place to demand improvements or changes in the service provided. These institutions have been left in some middle ground between state-funded institution and privately-funded business venture, to the detriment of academics and students. Demands being made under the ongoing industrial dispute are hardly radical. Many academics are simply requesting greater job security and more respect for the work they do. If universities aren’t designed to support students or academics properly, we are all left asking who on earth are they designed for?  

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