Three-D Issue 33: Casualisation in HE

Vincent Møystad
Tom Greenwood
Goldsmiths, University of London

Casualisation of academic staff is one of the key issues of this strike. Casualisation refers to the tendency of academic work to be split up into smaller, part-time jobs on fixed contracts. More and more academic workers face a precarious existence, expected to carry out more work for less pay, and in many cases unsure what may follow next four-month contract? These conditions cause stress and overwork, limit time for research, and for engaging meaningfully with students. In the longer run, these developments will make academic work impossible for anyone without significant wealth of their own. This will aggravate the racial, gendered, and class disparities that already mar academic work. The current strike and action short of strike is crucial in reversing this process.

The problems facing academic workers cannot however be separated from the struggles of other workers in education. Learning doesn’t just involve students and academics; facilities need to be cleaned and maintained, buildings need to be opened and secured, food needs to be cooked: there are hundreds of other workers involved in running the university. If we are going to speak about casualisation in higher education, it would be a mistake to limit this to academic workers alone. Cleaners, security guards, receptionists, administrative and library workers, and many others are also facing the same kind of stress and anxiety that comes with being constantly asked to do more work for less pay and with less security. 

There is already a powerful and coherent response emerging to the generalisation of precarity and casualisation in higher education. Different groups of workers and students have developed new tactics and forms of organisation, and have been successfully building meaningful solidarity across the limits of the roles assigned to them by the institutions. Recent examples at Goldsmiths include the 137-day occupation by Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA) and the campaign for insourcing of security and receptionists driven by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). Student and worker organising bridges the structural divide of the workforce by pay grade imposed by recognised trade union representation. Where established unions have been slow to respond to outsourcing and casualisation, these groups have fought back with confidence, courage and creativity. In the last round of UCU strikes, casualised academic workers and students were at the forefront of the struggle and played a major role in imbuing that strike with creativity and militancy. 

Higher Education institutions face systematic underfunding, and are forced to compete in a higher education ‘market’ that is inevitably stacked against them. While excessive pay for senior management and questionable asset focused investments are certainly part of the problem, the reason we are facing immiseration as workers is a specific set of state policies that result in worsening conditions and the undermining of education as a public good. But imagine the new kinds of learning and research we can develop in an environment of active and meaningful solidarity between cleaners, security guards, students, academic workers, and everyone who keeps the university running. It might be a reach, but the organisations and practices we develop here can have repercussions across the sector. This is worth fighting for, and it is probably our best shot at building the university we want. The fact is that we are not in dispute with an employer over the fair distribution of profits: we are in dispute over the fair distribution of loss. These are political questions. The struggles of casualised academic workers, outsourced workers, and student activists are the best opportunity in years to do this. Let’s not waste it.

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