Coming to a university near you: casualisation through internal outsourcing

Warwick University’s new ‘Teach Higher’ initiative aims to centralise ‘casual’ academic work. This move will only exacerbate the problem of precarious labour in the university. 

Craig McVegas
9 April 2015

Warwick’s University House, Image: ‘Necrothesp’

There are many notable things about the University of Warwick. Its commitment to linking the academy with industry has attracted strong criticism, most famously in E.P. Thompson’s Warwick University Limited, but it is undeniable the approach paved the way for a different sort of university compared to its redbrick predecessors. Remarkably for a university founded just 50 years ago, Warwick has consistently featured in the top 10 in yearly nationwide university rankings. This year, Warwick has hit its stride by being declared ‘University of the Year’ in The Times and Sunday Times ‘Good University Guide’, lauded for its “business-focussed research.”

In a university press statement, Warwick’s vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Nigel Thrift, outlined the central components of Warwick’s ‘genetic code’, foremost of which is its “commitment to outstanding teaching.” What he neglected to mention is that an increasing proportion of this teaching is carried out by casual, ‘non-permanent’ staff – often postgraduate research students or early career academics on hourly rates. This scenario is common across the university sector, and an investigation by the Times Higher Education found wages fail to reflect the hours worked by graduate teaching assistants.

This is the backdrop to Warwick’s latest path-breaking initiative: Teach Higher. A trading name for a national company called Warwick Employment Group (WEG), itself wholly owned by the university, which is being piloted in six departments with the aim of becoming the sole method of hiring non-permanent staff. The scheme’s terms and conditions – which have now been taken down from the Teach Higher website- state that rather than having a contract of employment, workers will receive a ‘contract of service’ for each ‘assignment’. Think of it as piece-work for academics.

Quite reasonably, there have been agitated responses at what sounds a lot like outsourcing. These claims have been dismissed as ‘nonsense’ by the university’s management, who yesterday released a statement saying Teach Higher will be an academic services department like any other, and that “hourly teaching and research at Warwick will never be outsourced.”

This is a disingenuous claim, predicated on the misleading idea that if a tutor is being paid by a company owned by the university, then they are still an in-house employee of the university. In reality, the use of a university-owned private company as a staffing agency constitutes a process of ‘internal outsourcing’, using a shared services model to serve the dual purpose of centralising the hiring of casual staff while being able to terminate employees’ ‘assignments’ at any time.

Beyond the confines of the University of Warwick campus, it is hoped that Teach Higher can operate as a commercial franchise across the rest of the sector. This would be to follow the path of Unitemps, another Warwick initiative. Unitemps was set up by the University of Warwick in 1997 under the WEG banner, and is now franchised to 13 academic institutions nationwide. The ostensible rationale is to provide a one-stop shop for non-academic university employment, aimed at helping out students who want to earn some extra cash. In reality, it has meant universities can employ the bulk of their cleaning, catering and security staff on precarious contracts with few of the entitlements or benefits that would come from a proper contract with the university.

The move towards a Unitemps for academics will come as little surprise to most of those who are taking note of the creeping tide of casualisation engulfing higher education, with zero-hours contracts becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Speaking to The Independent, a spokesperson for the University of Warwick allayed fears that there would be any erosion of employment rights, before stating: “We do not foresee a growth in the number of casual staff.”

These assertions point to two key problems facing proponents of Teach Higher. The first relates to the fact universities utilise a fairly two-tier system already. There are academics: prestigious, esteemed, fellows of the academy. And there are non-academics: the ‘auxiliary’ staff who fill in the gaps and generally go underappreciated but without whom a university would cease to function. There’s something about the casualisation of the latter group that sits a little easier; lesser jobs can be filled ad hoc, as long as someone is doing them. Whereas the idea of casualising academics, intellectuals, feels more unpalatable. This, I suspect, is the cynical rationale behind the rebranded Unitemps model that we now know as Teach Higher.

The second problem is that the idea of a university not foreseeing a growth in the number of casual staff simply flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary. As of 2013, over a third of the academic workforce was employed on a non-permanent basis, with temporary contracts rising by a third between 2010 and 2012. When this is kept in mind, it’s hard not to see Teach Higher as much more than a commercial vehicle aiming to reproduce and capitalise on an epidemic through farming its franchise out to other universities.

Meanwhile, research students and early career academics are losing out. Whereas with Unitemps the hackneyed trope of students carrying out a shift a week for beer money might just carry the ‘providing flexible jobs’ argument for some people, the same cannot be applied to those targeted by Teach Higher. Casual staff tend to be those who are trying to find a foothold at the beginning of an academic career, usually having racked up tens of thousands of pounds of debt. They are often in their late-20s or 30s, and so also struggling with spiralling rent and sometimes young children. The real-life result of casualisation is that they are forced to live hand-to-mouth, month-to-month. Teach Higher is trying to sweeten the pill by offering ‘professional training’, but this belies the fact that such schemes are going to extend and institutionalise casualisation with very human consequences.

Teach Higher says it is setting out to rectify the ‘haphazard’ system by which casual staff are currently employed through a patchwork of procedures across departments. This is a very real problem that groups such as Fighting Against Casualisation in Education are organising around. But the answer is not to force junior academics into a patchwork of temporary jobs. Rather, the answer is to end casualised contracts altogether and give temporary staff the same rights as permanent staff. 

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