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Queen’s University staff contracts slammed

University treats academics no better than Sports Direct treats its workers , claims lecturers' union

By Claire McNeilly

Published 19/11/2016

Queen’s University in Belfast
Queen’s University in Belfast

Queen's University is one of the elite UK academic institutions accused of treating its staff “little better than Sports Direct”, with high numbers of lecturers working on insecure contracts.

New research by the University and College Union (UCU) ranks the Belfast institution fifth out of 24 Russell Group universities cited by the union in relation to a high percentage of teaching and teaching-and-research staff on temporary or ‘atypical’ contracts.

QUB’s 63.6% was bettered only by Birmingham, Warwick, Edinburgh and Oxford on a ‘name and shame’ league table which also suggests that three-fifths of academics (58.5%) employed by Russell Group were on insecure contracts, compared to an average of 53.2% across the UK.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said universities had been relying for far too long on an army of insecure workers, with the most elite institutions the worst offenders.

“For thousands of staff precarious contracts are a grim reality where they don’t know if they’ll have a job next year or even what their income might be next month,” she added.

“Many universities are hacking up teaching jobs into ever smaller bits and shoving people on to the worst contract they can get away with. This is the Sports Direct model imported into our universities.”

In July MPs accused sportswear firm Sports Direct of subjecting its workers to conditions similar to a Victorian workhouse.

University employers have, however, disputed the analogy.

A QUB spokeswoman said the university “must retain the ability to operate in a flexible mode to adjust and respond to changes in demand”. 

“Queen’s University does not employ academic staff on ‘zero hours’ contracts,” she added.

“Like any responsible employer, the university uses temporary or fixed-term contracts to cover work which is not permanent or is funded for a defined period.

“The terms and conditions enjoyed by staff here at Queen’s, including those relating to staff welfare, are among the best in the UK. It is regrettable that UCU has not presented the atypical staff in terms of full-time equivalents (FTEs) — a basic requirement when undertaking such analysis.”

Last year the Belfast Telegraph revealed that nearly 100 employees at Queen’s were earning more than £100,000 a year, with three on at least £200,000.

Professor Patrick Johnston, who has been vice chancellor at Queen’s since March 2014, receives a £249,000 package.

And earlier this year QUB was branded irresponsible for suggesting student fees could rise to £6,300 a year after an official document proposing the increase was leaked to the media.

A drop in public funding — from £214m in 2009-10 to £185m in 2014-15 — was cited as the main reason for the proposed hike from £3,925 a year.

The research by UCU, which represents lecturers, prompted the National Union of Students to warn that low-paid and overstressed tutors may not be providing quality education to undergraduates paying tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.

“When academic staff are demoralised and forced to cope with low pay and insecurity, the knock-on effect on students is significant,” said NUS vice president Sorana Vieru.

“Many students are now taking on unprecedented levels of debt to go to university,” she said.

“They deserve good quality teaching, and anything that damages that is deeply unjust.”

UCU used data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency as the basis of its research and has called for universities to publish complete data on how much undergraduate teaching is taken on by non-permanent staff.

The data showed that academics teaching or doing research in British universities will typically have spent years earning doctorates or other qualifications, yet more than half of them — 53% —manage on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract.

They range from short-term contracts that typically elapse within nine months, to those paid by the hour to give classes or mark essays and exams.

Among junior academics —those most likely to be doing front line teaching — three-quarters are on these kinds of precarious contracts. It is highly likely that the majority of undergraduates are paying many thousands of pounds to be taught by casual workers.

In a statement, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said: “Universities do have fixed-term employment, as well as open-ended, but like any employer it is essential that they retain the ability to operate with part of their workforce in a flexible mode to enable them to adjust and respond to changes in demand.”

Case study: ‘Brutalisation’ of teachers is also penalising students

A 36-year-old post-doctoral researcher and teacher at Queen’s University Belfast, who asked to remain anonymous, said it was “brutal” for casual staff like him.

“I have a full-term contract, fixed for one year, and I don’t expect it to be renewed,” he said.

“Queen’s is at the forefront of the marketisation of the university, and the staff — both permanent and non-permanent — feel that this is not a good way to treat us. Students are also penalised by this kind of brutalisation of teachers because casual teachers cannot devote as much time as they would like to lessons because we’re not paid enough.

“Staff aren’t being treated well at all and the quality of teaching falls down because of the way teachers are paid. If people are not paid enough it is mighty hard to get to the end of the month, and if you’re stressed out you cannot focus on teaching as well as you could if you were treated better.

“It’s interesting to compare teaching and retail; the jobs don’t require the same focus. Teaching requires a lot of time, motivation, preparation and focus.”

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