Over the past week, teachers and support staff have been striking as part of the UCU over two things: the first, and the real big-ticket item, is the matter of how pensions are handled, which was also a major driver of the 2017 industrial action, but this is not the most important part of the strike. The second, subtler grievance is over the casualisation of university staff; the worrying increase in the number of staff being hired on non-permanent contracts. Such temporary contracts are completely necessary in certain circumstances, like for seasonal work such as Christmas sales assistants; however there is very little seasonal work in a university. There is never a day during which we don’t require cleaners, security staff, researchers, lab assistants, technicians, and all the other roles that are continuously necessary for a university to function, both as a place of education and of research.
So why is it over a third of University of Glasgow employees surveyed state they’re on a casual contract? Why are security staff worried that in the next few years, if the trend continues, over half their contracts will renew every three months? It is extremely advantageous to an employer to use (and in the University’s case, abuse) these type of contracts. Pay rises, maternity leave, and other expensive employee benefits require a certain length of employment. For instance, salary raises should be applied every year a contract is valid. For GTAs, usually PhD students who teach, it would be expected they get a pay rise for each of the two or three years they teach during their degree. The University manages to avoid this by making all GTA contracts last only nine months, meaning a GTA with three years experience is paid precisely the same as one with no experience at all.
Most GTAs, however, do not depend on their teaching jobs to eat or pay rent. The real tragedy of casualisation is the legions of staff unable to guarantee they will still be employed in a year, some unable to claim maternity leave, many unable to make ends meet. Around two thirds of surveyed UofG staff claim their mental health has suffered as a result of precarious working terms. As a result, education suffers. When more lecturers, lab assistants and demonstrators are forced into temporary contracts, their ability to give a decent quality of education diminishes.
The University’s neglect of its staff by casualisation has a negative impact on every single student. So please support this strike, not just to help your teachers and support staff get paid a fair amount, but to stand up against the abuse of casual contracts.