openDemocracyUK

'Fair pay' at universities, as long as you're full time

'Fractional Staff' appear to be severely underpaid and neither the universities nor even the unions seem at all interested. Worse, at times, they are actively hostile.

Anne Cato
13 March 2014

Earlier this year, a wave of news stories appeared in American media outlining the poor working conditions of adjunct faculty in universities. As a result of tragic stories like that of Margaret Mary Vojtko, journalists and media personalities began to unearth statistics about employment rates and the ‘near-poverty wages’ of adjunct faculty. Despite the staggering percentage of US university teaching undertaken by adjuncts, pay rates often hover just above a living wage and benefits such as healthcare are almost never provided. Taking to Twitter to voice their discontent, many adjunct faculty added to the hashtag #NotYourAdjunctSidekick (inspired by Suey Park), detailing the financial and emotional difficulties inherent to the adjunct experience. Far from being a product limited to a ‘consumerist’ US higher education system, these stories reveal that similar injustices and inequalities are equally manifest in UK universities.

I have taught in the University of London for four years and although my pay has always been disproportionately low to the amount of labour I input, the significance of my situation has only recently been brought home. The increased attention of the media regarding US adjunct faculty conditions have compounded my own experiences to create a growing awareness that my time and labour, and the labour of those in similar positions, is remarkably undervalued.

Within my University of London institution, adjunct faculty are called ‘Fractional Staff’. The term 'Fractional' refers to the fact that we are meant to perform only a portion of the job of permanent staff, and therefore, that we are paid a fraction of a full-time salary. Fractional Staff consist of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), Teaching Fellows (TFs) and Senior Teaching Fellows (STFs). Fractional Staff are employed for a variety of reasons, either (as is the case with GTAs) to run tutorials and assist with marking assignments, or to cover for vacancies left by permanent staff and thus, to act as Lecturers and Course Convenors (TFs and STFs). In all cases, we are an integral part of creating the HE environment, and supporting students therein. For TFs and STFs, this is, of course, more actively the case as they act as Lecturers, principle markers, and student advisors.

At various times I have served in all these positions and am currently an STF. This academic year, being an STF for me means providing cover for a Lecturer who has gone on research leave. As a result, I am the Acting Lecturer for two courses, I teach three tutorials, I am the principle marker on all end-of-term assignments, and I am supervising two MA theses. The only aspect of a full-time Lecturer's job that I am not currently fulfilling is that of taking on an administrative departmental task. So, am I paid most of a full-time Lecturer's salary? Not even close.

At my university they establish contracts for Fractional Staff by measuring 'face time' hours; this is literally the amount of time you stand in front of a classroom. So for my contract, I am paid for two, two-hour lectures, plus three, one-hour tutorials. Of course, the University is aware that being a Lecturer consists of more than just standing in front of a room full of students, so they use a 'multiplier' to compensate for time spent on preparation, answering emails, meeting with students in office hours, and in the case of GTAs, attending the lectures for which they provide the tutorials. Multipliers can vary across HE institutions but mine is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2.5 – such that my 7 hours of face time become 17.5 paid hours. Nevermind the total inaccuracy of such a figure (one could easily spend that amount of time on answering student emails alone), what's interesting to note here is that 17.5 is roughly half of an average working week. Am I paid half of a full time salary? No. Again, not even close. My pay rate amounts to roughly one-fifth of a starting salary for a full-time Lecturer.

The total injustice of Fractional pay is widespread in UK Higher Education, although again, it was only recently that I realised that it wasn't just those of us stuck in my institution in particular. I have now come across countless stories of Fractional Staff who, despite taking on almost all of the responsibilities of full-time Lecturers, are paid so little that often they are forced to quilt together several jobs in order to make anything like a living wage. One of my colleagues has five different contracts, spanning two different institutions, and yet she did not even manage to break £20,000 this year. Another colleague put her PhD on hold in order to fill a Lecturer vacancy for the year; she was expected to create a syllabus, write all the lectures, design assessments, and to sit on the relevant exam boards at the end of the year. The department for which she worked recently advertised her position in order to attract a permanent Lecturer and the starting salary offer was more than five times the amount they had paid her for the same responsibilities.

Throughout my years of teaching, I have also maintained a job in the university bar. This is often a source of discomfort for both myself and my students (because really, who wants to have to purchase their double gin-and-tonic from their Lecturer). This year, a student of mine came up to the bar during my shift and expressed his utter disbelief at seeing me there, 'I just can't get my head around it, you standing behind that counter. I thought you were a Lecturer!'

'Well, I'm an Acting Lecturer, yes. I'm called a Senior Teaching Fellow,' I explained.

'But that sounds so professional! It sounds like you would be set up. Why would you work this job?' he asked, clearly unsettled.

'I just can't afford not to,' I stated. 'I work 15 hours a week here in the bar just to get by. The University doesn't actually pay us very fairly'.

'I just feel so angry about this. I mean, you have a PhD,' he fumed. 'What does this say about how little the University values my education? No offense, but if they think so little of you as to pay you so poorly, then why have they given you two whole courses?'

To be honest, I had never thought about Fractional pay from this perspective, and of course, my student was spot on. If the University does not actually believe us to be qualified to act as Lecturers or Convenors, then why in the world would they give us so much responsibility? Surely, the introduction of student fees should mean that students are entitled to quality education developed by people deemed to be academically competent.

But this isn't really about qualifications, and of course those of us who are hired as Fractional Staff are equally as educated, and sometimes equally as experienced as our full-time counterparts.

The point is that because we are an undervalued, unrepresented, and disenfranchised group, we can be treated unfairly. We are told that working in Fractional positions (even year after year) is 'good for the CV', a line of reckoning akin to those used to justified unpaid internships. We are given promises, often well-intentioned but totally unrealistic, that if we hang on for just a bit longer, a permanent position will open for us. The activity of the unions give the appearance that 'fair pay' is a fight being fought on behalf of all academic staff, but this year's Lecturers’ strikes said nothing about Fractional pay.

The Fractional Staff in my institution have recently started to organise well-planned and earnest non-strike action, something they have had to do independent of the Union who have yet to make room for Fractional concerns within their own 'fair pay' demands. A senior member of the Union emailed Fractional Staff warning us that we were not to tack our campaign for fair pay onto their own since they had followed proper procedure, and had pursued approved channels of communication for their own ends. We were told that we could not simply demand to 'work to contract' because we were not appropriately organised and that we would leave ourselves vulnerable to university action.

The implications of such an email are staggering and illuminate the realities of Fractional Staff as the silenced, 'outsourced' labour within UK HE. On the one hand, it is clear that some permanent staff members have very little respect or concern for the working conditions of Fractional Staff. Frankly, many full time academics are totally ignorant of what it means to be Fractional and thus, do not see the total contradiction, for instance, in demanding that this disenfranchised group of people organise. On the other hand, to suggest that we cannot simply 'work to contract' speaks volumes about what kind of work, and how much of it we are expected to do regardless of what is documented. To refuse to do anything but 'work to contract' would be to somehow fail to fulfil the demands of ones' department, the students and the university, and would be grounds for administrative disciplinary action. 

My intention here is not to vilify permanent staff, but rather to highlight a mentality which is pervasive throughout the university. Instead of asking why it is that we are not entitled to contracts which actually reflect the time and effort we apply to our teaching, many members of the faculty are forced to concern themselves instead with bureaucratic scare tactics designed to keep costs low. Academic labour is being devalued across the board and yet we are embedded in an institution that denies the legality and legitimacy of working to the specifications of one's contract. For Fractional Staff, the ramifications of such an entrenched mentality mean that even our attempts to improve our conditions are often curtailed and that our relative instability is constantly reinforced.

The fight to establish a truly fair working environment is one of urgency and necessity. Fractional Staff are an integral, vital part of UK Higher Education and improving our working conditions is a step which must be taken, not only to guarantee us a greater quality of life but also to ensure a high calibre of education for UK students.  Without attending to the inequities imposed on Fractional Staff, the devotion and attention required to develop a truly engaging Higher Education environment will inevitably suffer.

*The author writes here under a pseudonym

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