October 2015        

Precarious workers in higher education

Chris Lowe

In the 12th of May edition of the Irish Times it was reported that the grass-roots activists Third-Level Workplace Watch believed that 40 per cent of teaching hours are accounted for by part-time teachers, while a researcher in Trinity College, Andrew Loxley, reported that 80 per cent of researchers in higher education were on temporary contracts.
     According to an information sheet based on the work of Aline Courtois and Theresa O’Keefe (available on the web site of Third-Level Workplace Watch), the average annual salary of casual academics is €10,000. They also found that 57 per cent of casual workers had been doing precarious work for over five years, with eight-and-a-half years being the average. Contracts are often offered at one to two years, while postgraduates who work are classed as “trainees.” Post-docs are also considered trainees, and there is a campaign against this in some universities.
     The pay and conditions these workers face include Job Bridge contracts for some research positions, resulting in pay being at the rate of €3.75 an hour. Modules are often paid by the hour, based on classroom time only, so that the design of the module, the preparation for individual classes and meetings with students can often be carried out free. One practice that Third-Level Workplace Watch highlights is that some work has been carried out with book vouchers or one-for-all vouchers being offered in lieu of pay.
     These working conditions affect students’ learning conditions, as the average rate of pay for the correcting of exams or essays is between €1 and €2. These pay rates encourage workers to read students’ work quickly and to limit the feedback they give them on their essays and exams.
     As a response to these exploitative work practices, Third-Level Workplace Watch was formed. A grass-roots campaigning group, it has concentrated on organising and awareness-raising. As a group it organises against these working conditions among various categories of workers, including lecturers, researchers, post-docs, postgraduates, and others involved in precarious work. The group does not limit itself to publicly funded universities and includes private-sector institutions within its area of concern.
     With regard to awareness-raising, in response to an action carried out at Maynooth University it has been successful in attracting the attention of Newstalk, KFM, and the Irish Times. A previous action at Trinity College drew the attention of the student newspaper. The group is active on both Twitter and Facebook, in addition to its web site (3lww.wordpress.com), and regularly posts links relevant to precarious work as well as related issues, such as gender inequality in academia.
     One of the group interviewed in the Irish Times, under the alias Helene, points out that there are people who are in this situation for twenty years. This shows that this is not just an “austerity” issue but instead has been a process that predates this. According to the journalist who interviewed her, Helene and the other academic who wished to remain anonymous feared they would be denied work if they spoke out.
     Recognition of this led to the tactic of “postcards from precarity,” launched at a solidarity event with the North American National Adjunct Walkout Day. This campaign allowed workers to draw attention to their working conditions without revealing their identity.
     Third-Level Workplace Watch does not see itself as an alternative to unions but recognises that there are challenges for precarious workers in higher education in addition to the fear of denial of work if one is seen as a troublemaker. In the third-level sector there is a challenge here, as many of those teaching do not do so in a single work-place. Some workers find the cost of joining a union a significant barrier, even at some of the special rates offered; others do not believe they are represented by unions.
     A notable success of Third-Level Workplace Watch’s campaign was forcing Maynooth to take down an advertisement for a one-year lecturing position that was being advertised below the proper lecturer’s pay scale. Among their plans is the organising of an Irish Adjunct Walkout to coincide with the next American National Adjunct Walkout.

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