Casualisation of labour in the university

 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.

Consider participating in our survey on third level working conditions at:

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8 thoughts on “Casualisation of labour in the university

  1. This is a crucial issue condensing much that is wrong with current university strategies. Even from a management perspective it does not make sense long term to create a precarious workforce. Trade unions across the world now see precarity as the major challenge as was so called labour flexibility in the 1990s. They are, however, in many places coming up with strategies to create a unified fightback uniting different sectors of the workforce. It should be possible to create such a strategy in the Irish university sector?

  2. As a victim of this same trends in the Australian sector – the lack of adequatley compensated work is the reason I now live on the other side of the planet to all my family and friends – the point is to intervene. I watched casualisation rollout with little to no resistance from the entrenched academic staff. In Australia, without the security of a proper tenure system and insecurity exacerbated by John Howard’s “culture wars”, the reticence to act may be (a little) mitigated. In Ireland there is no excuse. While I have no strategies to propose for building and sustaining that solidarity, here’s an example of a (late in the day) fight back organised by the National Tertiary Education Union that is worth exploring future reference.–14770

  3. It happens here in Canada too, there are so many different job titles and so many different levels of pay that it is really difficult to know how many of us there are. I have been doing this for 22 years and I have no job security — still applying every 4 months.

  4. There’s a weird contradiction at the heart of the university system, where we are taught on the one hand that it fosters critical thinking and liberal, egalitarian values and on the other it exploits intelligent, but perhaps naive post graduates and young academics who essentially do a large portion of the day to day work in the university for a tiny income. Academia and high finance are the areas where psychopaths proliferate and prosper and I think we can see this predatory attitude in action in our universities today.

    There are many good, moral academics but most of them tend not to be in positions of power. I think academia, particularly plays off its aura of intelligence, and my experience of academia has largely involved a demystification of this. The university seems to be full of clever, stupid academics, that is people who have a high level of verbal or other forms intelligence in compensation for their lack of the highest form of intelligence; self awareness. In this sense I think maybe then we are all complicit in the failings of the university; for me personally, I mark essays and exams on texts I have never read and lectures I never attended, I mark innatentively because marking attentively takes longer and brings my own marking under scrutiny because I fail more, I bring failing essays and exams up to a pass when asked and even brought up a whole year of C students up to Bs beacuse the lecturer requested it. There is always the fear that if you rock the boat you will be excluded and many academics explicitly use this to manipulate early career academics. Perhaps this is why we see such a concentration on research; beacuse that is where the platonic ideal of academia exists, not in the desert of the real of everyday university practice.

  5. Really excellent piece, and great to see something written about the situation in the Irish university. I’ve been teaching for five years as an adjunct in Trinity, recently submitted my PhD and am currently negotiating my first fixed term contract for teaching. In terms of my hours I’m currently allocated a full time lecturing load across two masters courses, but as it stands the teaching salary proposed in my contract is less than a minimum wage. And I should add that my fixed salary is a significant improvement on the casual rate I used to receive! It’s such a demoralising situation, particularly as there’s such a gaping inequality between an older often ‘complacent’ staff who have job security and comfortable incomes parasitical to younger staff who experience extremely competitive and precarious conditions. These young teachers as you say aren’t just providing demonstrations or tutorials – they are often carrying modules and providing significant external support for their courses. As a PhD student in Trinity, I not only taught, I designed modules, set and corrected exam papers, provided thesis supervision, sat on exam boards and even interviewed for my course. Much of this work was unremunerated because I was paid an hourly rate for my teaching time. I’ve had enough. I’m currently trying to renegotiate my contract because I feel that what my department are doing to young lecturers is so exploitative and wrong. I will not intern for my university. I have now refused to teach next semester unless this is addressed. I think there’s a good chance that by refusing to do this work for less than a living wage they’ll just find somebody else who will. Sadly there’s no shortage of post-graduates and post-doctorates who need to invest in their CVs, a situation I completely empathise with! One of the things that really struck me the past few weeks as I’ve been trying to talk to people in my university about my issue and seek advise is how widespread the situation is and yet how little communication there seems to be about the casualisation of university work. These conditions are all around us, they’re very transparent and yet there seems to be absolutely no recourse or support for young academics. Instead I’ve been told a lot the past few weeks how comparatively fortunate I am to have any kind of contract at all, and to have teaching experience, even when that doesn’t pay the rent! Anyway, I was really pleased to come across this. If you’re hoping to develop something more ongoing from this discussion please keep me informed!

  6. Rachel I think the idea of following through on all of this is vital.
    We are good at talking, but can we do action? This is a Charter for Action!
    We will be calling a Charter Campaign Forum early in the new year precisely to bring together the various strands of the campaign and design and deliver a real strategy for transformation. We will keep people informed through the website and the list if people sign up. Thanks!

  7. Thanks to everyone for your comments on our piece and for sharing your experiences. There’s been a great response to the questionnaire so far and this gives us hope that we can be successful in our fight for fair pay and working conditions. Just to let you know Third Level Workplace Watch are already organising around this issue. We plan to hold meetings with those in precarious work very soon. Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@3LWW) or Facebook but certainly sign up to our gmail list ( if you would like to be informed of when such meetings happen.

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