It’s no secret that around half of university teaching staff are on temporary contracts. While they feel anxious and insecure at the best of times, they are now doubly so due to the threat coronavirus poses to their future careers. This has been compounded by reports about academic job losses in Australia and hiring freezes in US universities. Now, with the news in the UK that the University of Sussex is reviewing temporary contracts across the institution, rumours of similar plans at other universities are circulating within the academic community, fostering a climate of fear and suspicion.
The threat posed by Covid-19 follows the University and College Union’s strike over working conditions in UK universities, including increasing job casualisation. The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the message from that strike: the instability of the gig economy is something employees shouldn’t have to endure. But it’s a shame that instead of using the crisis as an opportunity to prove they are in fact responsible employers, some universities are thought to be considering letting staff go, despite offers of government support.
As an academic who until recently spent more than 15 years juggling temporary contracts, I know how the constant stress and uncertainty feels. Trapped in a vicious cycle, I was continually looking out for the next job and unable to move forwards in my career. I worked in six short-term positions over the course of a year to make ends meet and I was always worried about affording basic living costs such as rent and food. This had a detrimental impact on my physical and mental wellbeing. I can imagine how much worse coronavirus would make an already difficult situation.
In academia, so-called “temporary” staff range from new starters to those who are highly qualified and experienced. Many have been in these roles for years. Although universities are obliged to make staff permanent after four years of continuous service, many contracts are term-time only, which enables them to evade this law.
These staff are not additional cover; they are integral to the running of universities. Many have been crucial to the enormous task of moving learning online due to coronavirus and supporting students at this difficult time. Colleagues have spoken of working round the clock, often above and beyond their paid hours.
This is why the possibility that universities may not renew the contracts of temporary staff in the wake of the outbreak is so stressful. Many have families to support, and often rely on a patchwork of temporary contracts throughout the year. Those working alongside their doctoral studies fear not being able to complete their theses, which could damager their career prospects.
There are other reasons for universities to hold on to their staff than just the ethical implications. Students will also suffer from a lack of continuity if they lose their teachers before the next term begins. Cuts will leave colleagues to pick up others’ workloads at a time of intense pressure to move learning online, respond to stressed students, and cover for the growing absences caused by the pandemic. Terminating contracts en masse could store up problems for the future, costing universities more money in the longer term through the recruitment and training of new staff.
Universities face a choice: they can support their temporary – but vital – workers or risk an unprecedented backlash at a time when morale is low, stakes are high, and the purpose and value of higher education is frequently under scrutiny. If universities do let valuable staff go, their flawed business models will be exposed as callous and unscrupulous. Mass termination of contracts would irrevocably damage not just institutional reputations but that of the sector as a whole. Instead we need our universities to adopt compassion and care, a problem-solving work ethic and commitment – just as their staff have always shown.