Aline Courtois and Theresa O’Keefe
The neoliberalisation of the university has dramatically changed the nature of work undertaken on behalf of the institution. The university has done particularly well in its race to the bottom with regard to wages, hours of employment, benefits, and job security. A huge gulf exists between the pay and working conditions of the bloated managerial and administrative bureaucracy and of those in junior academic ranks. Permanent jobs increasingly disappear in favour of low-paid, temporary employment. Such work comes without security, proper remuneration or benefits, and renders invisible the precarious workers whose labour the university relies on to function. These workers often teach core modules in departments or are the face of vital research projects yet they are denied recognition within the institution. From the perspective of the administration, these citizens of the university are not part of the staff compliment but merely temporary contracts to be “suppressed” upon expiration.
Even the conditions of temporary workers are eroding as the commonly used one-year lectureship contracts are replaced by nine-month specified purpose contracts. Often times these academics are let go over the summer to save the university money only to be brought back again at the start of term in September. This, of course, serves the university well as the small break in the contract prevents any claim to permanency and perpetuates a cycle of fixed term work at bargain basement costs.
Those with nine-month specified purpose contracts are in an enviable position relative to those on hourly pay and zero hours contracts. Such forms of employment are increasingly being used in place of fixed-term contracts. It is, therefore, not uncommon for teaching staff to work below minimum wage as the paid hourly rates do not sufficiently cover the amount of work it takes to produce a classroom hour or conduct student assessment. These academics are often forced to eke out a living by taking on greater teaching loads than permanent members of staff across a range of institutions in order to survive. Many are forced to claim social welfare in order to do so. Others are employed in the university on Jobsbridge, the Irish government’s workfare scheme which gives them a 50euro top up on their social welfare benefits. The university however escapes from paying a decent wage for labour received.
These precarious workers are also excluded from the very things which the myth of meritocracy promises are necessary to reap the reward of permanency. Temporary work excludes staff from accessing almost all research funding. Most grants have a minimum one year contract requirement upon receipt of award which eliminates most precarious researchers before they even apply. Travel, accommodation and fees make academic conferences beyond the reach of many as universities typically reserve conference travel funds for permanent members of staff. This further marginalises precarious workers and prevents them from engaging in research. Instead, they are often forced to take hourly-paid work on the research projects of others and not given academic credit for the work they do.
The casualisation of labour is also eroding academic freedom and consequently serves as one of the biggest threats to the university. Specified purpose contracts often confine workers in what they teach according to the needs of the department rather than their areas of expertise. It is not unheard of that teaching staff on such contracts are prohibited from doing work done on prior contracts so as to prevent any claims to permanency under the Fixed Term Workers Act. Such contracts are also restrictive in terms of research duties as temporary lecturing contracts increasingly remove explicit reference to research in favour of increased teaching loads at lower pay. Yet, the myth of meritocracy prevails while permanent jobs are dramatically fewer in number and network politics is burgeoning. This makes for a workplace that is even more hierarchical, exclusionary, gendered, and racialised as fewer women and people of colour get into permanent ranks, trapped instead on the hamster wheel of temporary work. This precarity is a feature of neoliberalism – systemic, enduring and exacerbated by austerity budgets, but not created by them.
Third Level Workplace Watch are a collective of precarious workers who share information on workplace struggles in universities and colleges in Ireland and beyond. We are organising to defend our rights to fair wages and working conditions. We wish to make explicit the university workplace as site of struggle. Unfair working conditions often remain hidden in any critical calls to highlight how the university is under threat. We feel any discussions on the university must first and foremost address the casualisation of labour and exploitative workplace practices that allow the university to function.
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