How do we sort out the precarity of contracts in academia: to strike or not to strike?

How do we sort out the precarity of contracts in academia: to strike or not to strike?


Over the last year, UCU members – staff in academic and academic-related roles at universities across the UK – went on 22 days of strikes. The strikes led to an offer from Universities that was rejected by the UCU membership. As the UCU general secretary, Dr. Jo Grady, put it “22 days of strike action didn’t produce the results members want or deserve”. In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic happened. As a consequence, anticipating a financial impact that is yet to be proven true, British universities adopted recruitment freezes while staff are facing massive redundancies. These hit the casualised staff most. But what about the University of Oxford? Some will claim that the pandemic increased the amount of redundancies. I argue here that we are yet to see whether the numbers got worse. What we know is that the staff on fixed-term contracts (FTCs) and on furlough have their mental health affected most with worries about finances, unemployment and the future of their careers. I reflect on these data as I need to vote on several motions for industrial action as an Oxford UCU delegate in the special HE sector conference.

The precarity of contracts at the University of Oxford

When I became an Oxford UCU caseworker, I picked the bullying and harassment cases because of my background. Nevertheless, all my cases turned into ‘end of FTC’ cases because when one has a conflict, it is easier for the employer to just wait for the “natural” end of the FTC. Currently, all my seven active cases are ‘end of FTC’ cases.

The large number of ‘end of FTC’ casework made me turn, like I always do when I campaign against precarity in academia, to the numbers. At the University of Oxford, 66% of contracts are FTCs compared to the 33% national average. Even the University of Oxford admits on its own webpage:

The UCU nationally takes a particular interest in monitoring the implementation of the Regulations. The overall use of different types of contract across the University is monitored centrally by University HR, and regular reports on this are given to joint committees with staff representatives. The annual reports to UCU highlight a relatively low take-up of the open-ended contract, and a lower reduction than had been hoped in the percentage of fixed-term contracts overall.

With this in mind, I started recommending that my FTC cases with service longer than four years request confirmation of permanence to all my FTC cases with a length of service longer that four years. As such, during our first Section 188 notice in history, in the Department of Oncology, I was able to successfully argue for permanent contracts for three members. This led to all professional support staff in the department with length of service longer than four years to be moved on permanent contracts.

It appears that the University of Oxford was right all along: We need to argue at departmental level with the help of caseworkers and representatives. This is why we need to empower them with recognition, knowledge and power to shape the Oxford UCU agenda.

Normally, to prepare for an end of FTC discussion, I encourage my cases to make an subject access request to obtain all data related to their employment including the source of funding recorded in the payroll database. In one of these cases, we were surprised to find out that, despite the objective justification on the FTC being the limitation of the external funding, in fact, the funding source was the University.

I wanted to investigate this issue more so I brought up the idea of freedom of information requests (FOIs). This is how an ad hoc working group within the Oxford UCU formed. One of the FOIs put forward by this working group shows that 2306 staff members with longer than four years service are on FTCs. This are 16% of staff members. On average, the length of service for these employees is 3151 days, which is almost nine years. In addition, 714 of the 2306 (31%) are either totally or partially funded by the University. It is important to note that the University would invest mainly in permanent tasks because project-based funding is already covered by the funding awarded for those projects. We need to look deeper into these 714 FTCs financed either totally or partially by the University.

An interesting outcome of these series of FOIs was the question of how many of the contracts longer than two years received statutory redundancy pay at the end of their employment: In the 2018-2019 financial year, only 27% of FTCs that ended after at least two years of service received statutory redundancy pay, which is an increase from the 0.7% of FTCs ending with statutory redundancy pay in 2015-2016. One has to look more into why people at the end of their FTC don’t receive the statutory pay that would give them some security until they get another job. Or maybe these people receive settlements due to issues they had during their service. This would be worrisome too.

But what interested me most was whether the recruitment freeze due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic led to fewer FTCs being started or more FTCs not being renewed than during the same time last year. I asked the same questions for the permanent contracts but I got no answer.

To the question of whether there are fewer FTCs starting each month during the pandemic than the same time last year, the answer is: YES. (I am waiting for the numbers for July-September at the moment to get a better picture).

FTCs starting

The lower number of people starting FTCs during the pandemic goes hand in hand with fewer job openings being advertised on the University website:

job openings

But the question of those feared “massive redundancies” is addressed by the figure below. (Note: for June, the numbers are given until the 17th of June so they are underestimated as most of the contracts end at the end of the month):

FTCs ended

To be fair, FTCs end with a three months notice and only when we see the numbers from July onwards, we will know the true impact of the ongoing pandemic. However, at the end of April, the University informed Oxford UCU about the expected number of FTCs ending for July-September. If our FOI requests will lead to higher numbers than those announced initially or numbers much higher than this time last year, we would have a reason to speak about the impact of the pandemic on job losses. But when the University let us know about the expected numbers of FTCs reaching an end, they couldn’t know how many of these FTCs would be extended. This is why I also monitored the number of extended FTCs and compared with the previous year. (Note: I only got monthly figures for the Medical Sciences Division and Jun-20 has the data only until the 17th of June leading to underestimating the numbers. See the reasoning given here.):

MSD FTCs ended and extended

However, the fact that the FTCs were extended is not enough of a measure: we also need to look at the extension time. (Note: I only got monthly figures for the Medical Sciences Division.):

MSD average length of contract extension

The numbers show a dangerous trend: The extensions offered for FTCs are shorter over the last year leading to more uncertainty for already precarious employees. When it comes to international staff members, this also leads to an expensive – more than 1000 GBP – and complicated procedure for a visa extension. With Brexit around the corner, this problem will affect more employees. Anticipating this, I got involved in an ad hoc (non-UCU) group organising around this issue. This is how we came up with a survey that would help with data collection to better define the issues affecting international fellows and staff members at the University of Oxford.

I was asked several times whether we are facing massive redundancies because of the pandemic; I was careful about making a statement. Another question I am faced with is whether the Department of Oncology change management process has anything to do with the pandemic: NO. We received a note about this change management process in February, while the staff knew about it for at least two years.

Even though we are still uncertain about how the anticipated financial loss by the University affected the number of redundancies, we already know that:

  • 66% of contracts at the University of Oxford are FTCs compared with the 33% nationally
  • there should be much more open-ended or permanent contracts offered by departments, as acknowledged publicly by the University
  • every month, 100-300 FTCs end
  • in the Department of Oncology alone, 81 jobs will be cut by the end of the year, while other departments are also suffering the consequences of the funding model being shifted from institutional basis to project basis
  • since the recruitment freeze, there are fewer job openings advertised on the website and consequently fewer FTCs are being started
  • in the Medical Sciences Division, the extensions of FTCs are shorter and shorter, which has a higher impact on international staff

Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation of two out of three staff members is precarious. What we know about the impact of the pandemic on staff  is from the 824 respondents to the survey I organised and I am currently analysing. Around 30% of respondents thought about leaving, 44% of them because they cannot accomplish their career plans here, and almost 30% were unsatisfied with the University’s response to the pandemic. Moreover, we know that more employees on furlough or on FTCs were nervous, restless or fidgety, hopeless and feeling like everything was an effort over the previous 30 days than their counterparts on permanent contracts. Similarly, more staff on furlough or on FTCs were worried about finances, losing their job or unemployment and the long term impact the pandemic will have on their job prospects than employees on permanent contracts. In conclusion, the survey shows that job insecurity affects the mental wellbeing of staff, especially during the pandemic. At these times, the University decided to make cuts in the occupational health department, a service that usually mitigates impact on the mental wellbeing of staff.

What we also know about the financial impact of the pandemic at the University of Oxford is from an Open Forum on the 6th of July with Professor Anne Trefethen, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (People and GLAM), and Julian Duxfield, Director of HR. During this forum, Julian Duxfield announced plans to cancel the pay uplift, which he acknowledged that might trigger a dispute.

We had put a budget together as a university pre Covid-19 where we were anticipating 2% pay uplift as a result of the negotiations, which would have cost £15 million. I fully expect there to be no pay increase as a result of those negotiations. However, those are still on-going. There will be a national meeting tomorrow. It will be a difficult meeting and the unions are likely to want to go through their own consultation processes after that meeting before they can give the employers a formal response. I fully expect that may trigger a dispute but given the clear steer provided by HEIs across the UK, I don’t expect ground to be given on that pay uplift issue.

Julian Duxfield also announced that the discretionary pay awards, which include senior salary reviews, professorial merit pay and awards for excellence, will be put on hold. He also announced that consultation will start on removing the payment of exam and supervision fees for those who have a contractual duty to examine or supervise. However, when asked about a voluntary temporary pay cut for those with salaries in excess of £100,000, he answered:

There’s a question about Cambridge having taken a voluntary temporary pay cut for those with salaries in excess of £100,000. And, yes, Cambridge are currently in the process of putting that in place. There’s been some press coverage on that. Some other universities, notably Imperial, have done a similar thing. We’ve not put that in place at the moment. Our current view is that we don’t absolutely need to put any pay cuts in place, but we will review that as time goes on. We need to be really clear that the actual benefit from some of those pay reductions is actually relatively limited.

To conclude, there will be no salary increments for us during an unstable economy and in some cases income reduction, and no solidarity from the management. What is striking is that Julian Duxfield is not afraid of a dispute that might lead to industrial action. By the 6th of July, he found out that the UCU’s Fighting Fund was low and a levy needed to be applied to all members. This was an indication that another round of industrial action will be difficult and unaffordable for many. However, we showed tremendous solidarity and we campaigned for donations, while also donating ourselves, resulting in the levy being mitigated to a certain extend. However, the levy affair together with the rejected offer from the UCEA left many disillusioned with the strikes.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to strike, such as the push for face-to-face teaching. This is why I started this discussion among the health and safety representatives on the 7th of September when there was still time to ballot the branch members before the start of the academic year. There was no support for industrial action neither from the people present at the meeting nor from other members I talked to. This is why we came up with a report to solidify some demands regarding face-to-face teaching.

Nevertheless, I would still want to ballot the members to ask for their input. But the success of that ballot is a coin toss. What do we do if the members are not for industrial action? What alternative strategies are there?

A story of payment precarity in the Max Planck Society

In 2015, after a decade of fighting towards abolishing fellowships giving student status to doctoral candidates, we were successful: We replaced fellowships with proper employment contracts. Having an employment contract gave legal protections to doctoral candidates through the employment law.

What actually happened in 2014 that precipitated this change after years of struggles?

In 2014, my second year representing the Max Planck PhD candidates, I realised that doing the same things as before doesn’t work. This is why, I contacted all the former Spokespeople and activists, going back more than a decade, and asked them what was tried, what worked and what didn’t. We got a timeline for each of our historical demands. I discovered that most reforms of fellowships were done as a consequence to a survey in 2009, while media and political pressure improved payment conditions in 2012.

In January 2014, we collected reports from local representatives and reported them to the central administration (together with a survey on another issue: the situation of health insurances for international doctoral candidates). After a meeting with the Max Planck president at the time – Peter Gruss – he endorsed the report and asked the Max Planck departments to behave better. Some departments changed their attitude, while other departments continued as before. This is why, in June, we leaked the initial report to the media leading to the newly appointed president – Martin Stratmann – to be called in the Bundestag to explain himself. As a consequence, in July we received a long letter arguing that our January report was a list of isolated cases that was not properly researched. (Years later, I told one of the stories behind my investigations of an institute on that list.) We responded with a survey we set up overnight to check the validity of their “isolated cases” claim. In August, we received a letter from the deputy General Secretary of the Max Planck Society stopping the survey and delete the data based on a legal technicality. The survey already gathered more than 1500 responses showing that 3-4% of all PhD candidates finish their doctoral research and thesis writing while received social welfare or unemployment benefits.

On the 1st of September we met with the Max Planck president who informed us that he they looked into the personnel data from the reported Institutes over the previous ten years. The president spoke to the issue of PhD candidates finishing their doctoral research and thesis writing while receiving social welfare or unemployment benefits. He asked us: “What is a problem 3% or 30% of the PhD candidates being in this situation?” I replied that it is not up to me to decide on how many people we allow to be in this situation. I added: “If there is one person in this situation and this reaches the press, it is your problem and not my responsibility”.

After this meeting, the precarity of doctoral candidates finishing their PhDs on unemployment benefits or social welfare was reported in the media within the context of how issues are handled by the Max Planck headquarters. I made sure that the Max Planck monitor in the Bundestag is asked for an opinion and her opinion gets published in the news article. As such, we got her support on record which facilitated my approaching her to make the following point: “The Max Planck president and I are at an impasse about what constitutes a problem: 3% vs 30%. I didn’t see the personnel data but you, as the monitor, can ask for this data and decide on your own what is acceptable.” She promised to have this situation mediated within six months; she made the Max Planck president abolish fellowships within five months. This change was an annual investment of 50 million EUR.

Food for thought

To conclude, strikes led to individual loss in wages and a lot of division within the UCU about mitigating this loss. But there were plenty of reasons to strike regarding job insecurity, among others. The reasons are still there. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the 22 days of strikes brought more worries about finances. While we don’t yet have conclusive evidence that there are massive redundancies as a consequence at the University of Oxford, there is some financial impact on pay increments, discretionary pays, and exam/ supervision fees. However, there is proof of the impact of the ongoing pandemic on the mental wellbeing of those employees on furlough or FTCs. This impact risks being left only partially mitigated due to the cuts in occupational health. In addition, staff will be endangered by being asked to do face-to-face teaching. But are these enough reasons for the Oxford staff to vote for industrial action?

Strikes are important: they bring a feeling of solidarity and media attention to issues. However, though I already proposed to start organising a ballot for a strike more than three weeks ago, when there was still time to react to the face-to-face teaching debacle, there was no support among active Oxford UCU members. Yet, a few representatives shouldn’t decide the faith of 1900: so let’s ballot. But what if the membership doesn’t want to go on strike? What’s next? I asked for a plan before and I never got an answer.

In the meantime, there are alternative strategies as I showed before: survey results mixed with media attention that will bring political will. This is what we are planning to do in the local Fund the Future campaign.

In the end, only the membership decides what approach we take next, either through a ballot or their vote in the contested Oxford UCU presidential election. In the meantime, at the Special HE sector conference today, I will vote to ballot for industrial action, i.e., ask the membership for their input.

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