Universities to cull thousands of academics on short contracts

UK universities are cutting the jobs of thousands of academics on short-term contracts as the sector prepares to make sweeping cuts in the wake of coronavirus.

Institutions across the country have dropped hundreds of hourly posts and left temporary contracts to expire, leaving academics facing unemployment and depleting the capacity of departments to run courses and support students.

Universities are expecting a sharp drop in income as the number of foreign students falls owing to the pandemic. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates the sector could lose anywhere between 7.5 per cent to half of its yearly income over the next four years, and warned institutions were unlikely to “claw back” those losses without making redundancies.

But academics and unions warn that cuts to the temporary workforce will reduce the quality of teaching and significantly add to the workloads of other staff members. They also point out that temporary workers — many of whom are young and tech-savvy — proved essential in setting up online learning during lockdown.

Vicky Blake, president of the University College Union, which represents university staff, said that by cutting non-permanent staff on whose work they depend for teaching and research after years of rapid expansion, university leaders were “pulling the rug out from under their own institutions”.

“The sector is propped up by this casualised labour,” she said.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 33 per cent of academic staff in the UK were on fixed term contracts in 2017-18. UCU analysis shows that of these, black and minority ethnic staff were disproportionately affected, with 42 per cent on fixed term contracts, compared to 31 per cent of their white counterparts.

The University College Union last week passed a vote of no confidence in the vice-chancellor of the Royal College of Art and threatened strike action © Arcaid Images/Alamy

Many of these non-permanent contracts are about to expire, but hiring freezes mean they are unlikely to be renewed as would normally be the case. According to Ms Blake, there are indications that thousands of jobs could be lost, with “layer upon layer of people who they [the universities] are just letting go like balloons into the sky”. 

The UCU understands that 1,100 fixed term contracts are at risk at King’s College London, which confirmed it had a “general recruitment freeze” but said it would renew fixed term staff “soon and where appropriate”. At Sheffield University, 116 fixed term contracts have already expired and, according to a statement, most remaining fixed-term posts are being reviewed “based on anticipated student numbers and our financial challenges”.

Other institutions have announced teaching budget cuts of up to 50 per cent and have warned temporary staff that their contracts may not be renewed. The University of Reading’s vice-chancellor last month said a worst-case scenario would mean losing the equivalent of 500 full-time jobs.

Universities say it is not unusual for temporary contracts to expire and that staff could be rehired in the next academic year if student numbers allowed. The University of Liverpool, where 536 contracts are either due to or have already expired, said fixed term contracts were “part of the higher education landscape” and were used “legitimately and appropriately”. It added that staff whose contracts were expiring would be supported in finding new jobs.

But Peta Bulmer, who has worked at Liverpool for more than two decades but held a temporary contract after a career break, said although staff could be rehired in September, the situation was “far from business as usual”. “Many of the staff losing jobs this summer will not be rehired, and the recruitment freeze across HE means they are unlikely to get a job at a different institution either,” she said.

The threat of job losses has resulted in disruption at a number of institutions. At the Royal College of Art, in London where the UCU estimates more 90 per cent of staff are on temporary contracts and 200 jobs are at risk, the union last week passed a vote of no confidence in the vice-chancellor and threatened strike action.

“Students have to realise that if they are coming to RCA and the vice-chancellor doesn’t rescind the cuts and give us proper conditions of labour, they are going to be coming to an institution that is in utter turmoil because of industrial action,” said Kevin Biderman, who teaches at the college. 

In a statement, the RCA said it was “being hit hard by the economic consequences of Covid-19” and called on the government “for a comprehensive support package that protects jobs, preserves academic capacity and guarantees universities’ survival”.

In the past month there have also been wildcat strikes over the expiry of contracts at Goldsmiths University in London. A university spokesman confirmed that 343 contracts would end in October.

UCU branches at 15 other universities and the union’s national Higher Education national committee have passed motions in support of a “corona contract”, to protect non-contract staff.

The University and College Employers Association, which represents universities, said while it was “too soon” to predict the full financial impact of the pandemic, it was “deeply concerned”.

“It is not surprising that many HE institutions are having to discuss possible job reductions with their employees and trade unions,” said Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s chief executive. “HE institutions boast some of the best employment frameworks in the UK, with decisions affecting jobs never taken lightly.”

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