University sends ‘present’ giving six month’s notice days before Christmas
A leading academic at Queen’s University Belfast has spoken out about receiving a redundancy notice just days before Christmas.
Dr Amanda Slevin (40) is the co-director of Queen’s Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action.
She also chairs Climate Coalition Northern Ireland and contributed to work on a Climate Bill sponsored by the Green Party leader Clare Bailey.
On December 21, the last working day of the academic term, she shared a letter on Twitter from Queen’s University stating that her employment will end in six months.
“My (Christmas) present from (Queen’s) is pretty much the same as last year, (six months) notice of redundancy,” she said.
“When people ask why (University and College Union) members strike, academic precarity and inequalities are key reasons. Women and people of colour are worst affected by exploitation and poorer academic jobs.”
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Dr Slevin said 12 years of constantly moving from job to job at universities across Ireland, over-work and stress had left her in a state of burn-out and feeling like a disposable employee.
“This is my second year in a row where I’ve received redundancy notices before Christmas from Queen’s,” she said.
While funding was reallocated to extend her employment earlier this year, she said living with constant uncertainty was taking its toll.
“I’ve been working 14 hour days, sometimes for seven days a week and using my research for positive change,” she said.
“The precarious nature of my employment, overwork, added challenges of working through the pandemic, and the sheer demand for my expertise caused me to burn out.
“It isn’t just Queen’s though; systemic inequalities across higher education mean that I and many others are treated like disposable employees.
“When I received that email on Tuesday, I couldn’t believe Queen’s would send something like that a few days before Christmas, particularly given the impact of my work.”
When contacted about the matter, a university spokesperson said: “Queen’s University does not comment on individual staffing issues.”
Many of Dr Slevin’s fellow academics were quick to voice their support on Twitter, calling it an all too familiar problem in the profession.
According to the Queen’s annual report for 2020-21, the university also described a “positive” financial picture with a surplus of £24.3m.
The net assets position was also said to remain strong at £772.8m, an increase of £143m from the previous year.
Sean O’Connell, Professor of Modern Irish and British Social History at Queen’s, said: “Dreadful news Amanda. Yet another all too real example of the need to drastically change employment practices”.
According to a survey from the Queen’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU), a total of 64% of academic staff at Queen’s are on casualised contracts, including 38% on a fixed term contract.
Those academics from a BAME background are 2.5 times more likely to be on a fixed term contract.
Women are also said to be disproportionately employed on fixed term contracts, with women in both academic and non-academic positions 6% more likely to be on insecure contracts.
Fiona McGarry, the president of the Queen’s UCU branch, said Dr Slevin’s situation summed up the plight of many people working in higher education.
“People ask why we have been taking industrial action since 2018,” she said.
“This is exactly why. The HE sector is full of exceptionally talented people on the most precarious of contracts.”
She said Dr Slevin was among hundreds of Queen’s employees who had received a similar letter over the last 12 months.
“I’m not sure how many of them received it on the last working day before Christmas though … For an organisation that loves to pat itself on the back in terms of how they treat staff, it frequently outdoes itself in examples to the contrary. As the main caseworker for the branch, I could tell you some stories.”
She questioned how students could be expected to get value for money when staff contracts are so uncertain.
Earlier this month Queen’s University also confirmed that it would be returning to online teaching for most students in the new year as part of Covid safety measures.
Ms McGarry said: “This requires a massive amount of work in terms of the practicalities of setting systems up but also changing course content and assessment to optimise it for our students.
"Staff are already shouldering crippling workloads. When you add in uncertainty around resourcing, it is like pouring petrol onto a fire.”
She added: “I’m constantly frustrated by the broken system we work in and disappointed by our employer’s refusal to envision what we could do with our university if they were willing to invest a little bit of their millions of pounds of reserves in workers on the ground instead of focusing solely on senior management and shiny new buildings.”