Worlds of Education

Photo: UCU Photographer / Flickr
Photo: UCU Photographer / Flickr

“How the COVID-19 crisis may impact higher education unions’ work and strategy on casualisation”, by Rob Copeland.

published 7 April 2020 updated 7 April 2020
written by:

In response to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, unions have been working hard to ensure that governments mitigate the effects on workers’ jobs, salaries and working conditions. During this ongoing crisis, workers in so-called ‘non-standard forms of employment’[1] such as those on zero-hours contracts, in agency work and in ‘bogus self-employment’ have been particularly hard hit by the massive scaling down of hours and operations in the economy. For example, workers in tourism, hospitality, logistics and the entertainment industry are highly casualised and experiencing massive upheavals and loss of incomes.

Another highly causalised sector - higher education and research – has also been affected by COVID-19, as universities have closed their campuses and transformed staff working patterns. As part of their response to COVID-19, higher education unions are seeking to ensure ‘no detriment’ for precariously-employed staff as a result of these changes. However, even before the current COVID-19 crisis, it had become abundantly clear that casualised staff in higher education are in a much vulnerable position than their colleagues on permanent contracts.

Earlier this year, the University and College Union (UCU) published a report on the experiences of casualised staff working in UK higher education institutions.' Second class academic citizens', by Nick Megoran and Olivia Mason of Newcastle University, identifies four ways in which casualised academic labour is 'dehumanising'. Based on detailed interviews with academic staff, the report says casualised staff are:

  • rendered invisible and treated as ‘second-class academic citizens’;
  • at risk of exploitation;
  • denied the academic freedom that should be the basis of an academic career;
  • unable to plan a professional or personal life.

First of all, the UCU report gives a ‘human face’ to the typical problems faced by casualised academic staff. For example, one interviewee talks about how the bubble quickly burst on 'the best job in the world' when it was apparent how she would be treated differently to her colleagues. From seemingly trivial matters, such as not having her name on her door, to being told she had to do all her own admin, she says that her and her colleagues found themselves in the 'sweatshop of academia'. Another interviewee complained about the amount of time she had to spend applying for jobs. She said that the nature of temporary contracts meant that sometimes she would have to start applying for jobs as soon as she took up a new position. Others told how they were not given adequate time for teaching preparation, which is a common problem for casualised staff in teaching positions. All of these problems have been magnified as a result of COVID-19, which has also disrupted opportunities for precariously-employed staff to deliver traditional face-to-face teaching and to apply for new research grants to extend their employment.

Secondly, the UCU report highlights the scale of casualisation in UK higher education: two-thirds of researchers (67%) on fixed-term contracts and almost half of teaching-only staff (49%) are employed on fixed-term contracts. However, casualisation is not unique to UK higher education: on the contrary, reports by Education International, the International Labour Organisation and the European Commission reveal it to be a global phenomenon.

In fact, one of the most common problems faced by EI member organisations in the higher education sector is the use of precarious contracts for both academics and education support personnel.  Firstly, in most jurisdictions, the main issue is the growth of fixed-term research contracts, particularly when the contract type is linked to short-term funding. These posts have been fuelled by the expansion of project-based funding and requirements for Higher Education Institutions and academics to bring in additional forms of revenue.

Secondly, there has been an increased reliance on casualised, hourly-paid teaching staff in many jurisdictions. In some countries, this has been driven by the austerity agenda (e.g. Italy) but it is not the only explanation. For example, in countries such as the UK and Australia, it is part of a deliberate attempt by institutions to reduce their spending on staff and divert resources into other activities such as large-scale infrastructure projects at home and abroad (e.g. offshore campuses).

Both fixed-term researchers and hourly-paid teachers have been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many fixed-term researchers, for example, have seen their research projects severely disrupted – for example, due to new social distancing or self-isolation rules – but have had no guarantees that their employment contracts will be extended as a result. .  While for casualised, hourly-paid teaching staff, the end to face-to-face teaching has meant a potential loss of income and a reduction in pay associated with online learning models. Casualised staff fear that they are also more likely to be laid-off as a result of an expected drop in international student fee income in the 2020-21 academic year.

The impact of casualisation on staff – and students – can be significant. Precarious contracts are affecting the physical and mental health of staff and can also have a negative impact on students’ learning. For example, a survey of contract staff - published in 2018 - by the Canadian Association of University Teachers found that two-thirds of respondents said their mental health has been negatively impacted by the precarious nature of their employment. Research shows that women and underrepresented minorities are also more likely to be employed on fixed-term contracts.

In terms of students’ learning, higher education teachers employed on casual contracts have working conditions that make it difficult for them to consistently reproduce the high quality interactions with students that can be achieved by those on decent, secure contracts. The rapid shift to online teaching – as a result of COVID-19 – has raised major issues for all higher education teachers. However, those who are in precarious employment may be particularly disadvantaged by this shift as they are less likely to be able to access infrastructural and professional development support from their employer.

Of course, casualisation also means greater uncertainty for students as their lecturers may no longer be employed in the next semester (and during the COVID-19 crisis, many students are facing financial uncertainty due to the loss of their own temporary, part-time jobs).  In short, the working conditions for casualised staff are the learning conditions for students and that’s why staff and student representatives need to work together in combatting casualisation.

What are unions doing in response to these issues?

Unions are fighting back against casualisation in a number of different ways. Firstly, collective bargaining and social dialogue remain the key to improvements on the ground and unions are actively involved in securing better agreements. In some cases, these campaigns have required industrial action in support of greater job security. For example, in UCU, the fight for decent contracts is a key part of the union’s Four Fights dispute over pay and working conditions. Similarly in France, the fight against precarious work has been central to the recent strike action on 5 March 2020. And in response to the COVID-19 crisis, unions are pushing for governments to include casualised higher education staff as part of national wage replacement schemes.

In recent years political campaigning to secure legislative changes on  the use of fixed-term contracts has been another major union objective, for example, as occurred in Germany in 2016. A key challenge is ensuring that the legislation is properly implemented at the local level and as a result there is a need for ongoing union campaigns for greater security of employment (for example, the Templin Manifesto in Germany and the ‘Riceratori Determinati’ campaign in Italy).

Regardless of the methods that are deployed, precariously-employed members must be central to the union’s strategy on combatting casualisation. That means recruiting, mobilising and organising casualised colleagues into the union. Unions are beginning to do this at both the local and national level but there are also opportunities to exchange good practice at the international level.

In Europe, a new project - YOUR TURN! Teachers for Trade Union Renewal- provides one possible opportunity. The ETUCE project focuses on education union efforts to renew their organisations in response to major political and economic changes such as the decentralisation of collective bargaining and the demands of an increasingly diverse membership. Higher education unions have a key role to play in this project, particularly in highlighting the work that they are doing to attract casualised workers into their structures and in ensuring that the issues faced by casualised workers are central to the union’s bargaining, legal and policy agendas, including in relation to COVID-19.

In fact, the ongoing crisis may offer an opportunity for renewing union’s work and strategy around casualisation, while the greater awareness of the inequities of precarious work could lead to renewed public support for better employment rights and job security. With a shift in public policy alongside an active and engaged membership, hopefully we can begin to turn the tide against exploitative contracts in the education sector.


[1] “Precarious workers pushed to the edge by COVID-19”, Janine Berg, ILO Senior Economist. Available here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.