Covid-19 and the academic precariat

2 May

A few years ago I was on a UCU picket line for a one day strike at Sheffield Hallam University. I was now retired but remained a union member, and had shown up to do my bit. Picketers came and went but at some point I found myself next to a fellow UCU member, a full time lecturer.

I knew this person, a course leader. Several years earlier she’d used my insecurity of contract to end, arbitrarily and unilaterally, my teaching on one of her courses. Asked why, she’d cited negative student feedback but would not supply the same on ground she had more important things to do. When at last I secured it by Freedom of Information Request1 the written feedback proved highly positive.

This, and other practices more egregious still, form the details of the Employment Tribunal case I brought against SHU in 2012. That they have yet to be Heard is down to the fact that, from the outset, this employer chose not to defend its practices. Rather, it spent seven years arguing – to resounding success initially – that on technical grounds my claims of less favourable treatment as a part time worker should not be considered. The details of those technicalities, though I say so myself, are by no means tediously arcane. Check the link in the previous paragraph.

My fellow picketer was a trade unionist, a committed one I suppose. Yet she’d made use of the insecure status of a colleague to damage his livelihood for reasons I don’t understand, but are in any case beside the point. Others would do similar, or by their silence underwrite such abuse. Sadly, they include many avowedly on the Left.

These aren’t Bad People – that’s a child’s explanation. Interpersonal psychologists, mindful of a Just World Theory aspect of human behaviour, will recognise one of the mechanisms at work. As with racism and sexism, a belief by academics on permanent contracts that their zero hour colleagues, known at SHU as associate lecturers, are somehow lesser is widespread – but these days largely unconscious.

Whatever her reason for wanting me off her course – assuredly not the one she gave – I doubt the person I stood beside on that picket line had given a moment’s thought to the impact of her decision on me. She’d wanted an outcome; bringing it about had been a breeze. Our employer’s use of zero hours contracts, to bypass 2000 Regulations designed to protect part time workers, was a tool she did not hesitate to make use of.

Not that she’d have been aware this was what she was doing. All she needed to know was that a source of staffing no longer required could be cast aside at the drop of a hat. I don’t suppose she’d had the slightest curiosity about the underlying contractual mechanisms:

SHU’s [governors] met on June 26, 2000 to hear a proposal by their HR Director. Context? The Part-Time Workers Regulations (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) 2000 would come into force on July 1 [while SHU] had form on issuing contract after fixed term contract to part time lecturers in furtherance of flexibility.

That meeting heard three alternative means of bypassing the Regulations. In 2013, aware of the significance of the avoidance strategy agreed that day, I lodged a FoI Request for the minutes. It was denied on ground none existed. I countered that it beggared belief to suppose an outfit SHU’s size would take the decision without recording its deliberations. Only then was the document I call Why SHU went for ZHCs supplied.

Roddis v Sheffield Hallam: Part 2

Since launching my case all those years ago, I’ve been on a road of discovery. From the outset I was keen to avoid personalising my grievances. In part this was tactical. I wanted support, and you don’t get that by whining like a baby. More important, I strive for an impersonal perspective on personal experience. I don’t say I’m always successful in this, but I do try.

For those of my friends who’ve been surprised – dismayed in one or two cases – at how far I’ve moved Left this past seven or eight years, I have various answers. Carnage in the Middle East is one of them. At side of that, the misdeeds of a provincial polytechnic may seem small potatoes. All the same, insofar as they reflect global phenomena – a drive to monetise and privatise the world, with casualisation one means to that end (and war another) – they too have shaped my conviction that, as I say in the ‘about’ page of this site, a world run for profit is a world run by the criminally insane.

And as I’ve said much more recently, Covid-19 shines a torch as never before in my lifetime on the rottenness of capitalism, with its systemic inability to put people before profits. Just one of the things I had in mind was the precariat. In fact, now I come to think on it, I should thank that picket line course leader. Let’s see if I still have her email address …

… oh, almost forgot. A few days ago the Guardian ran a worthy piece on academic casualisation – Covid-19 shows up UK universities’ shameful employment practices

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  1. I may be wrong here. I made a lot of FoI requests at this time, but found the FoI team at SHU decreasingly cooperative. This particular request may have been made under the Data Protection rather than Freedom of Information Act.

11 Replies to “Covid-19 and the academic precariat

  1. You have friends who’ve been surprised – dismayed in one or two cases – at how far you’ve moved Left this past seven or eight years? What surprises me is that, under increasingly obvious circumstances, anyone can AVOID moving to the Left – and as far Left as possible. Indeed how anyone can still maintain the old central “social compact” model is the biggest surprise, not to say disappointment!

  2. I just noted with delight how the Guardian article you link to was written by the excellent Stefan Collini. He is the author of “Hegel In Green Wellies”, a wonderful and well deserved critique of the late Roger Scruton.

      • You can find it here.

        The bit that really struck me is towards the end where Mr Collini talks about:

        “the disabling paradox of modern ‘conservatism’: that it wants simultaneously to liberate market forces and to lament their effects. Hence the deep structural dilemma of the modern Tory social critic: the forces that are destroying all that he loves are the forces he is committed to supporting.”

        As someone who lives in a rural district and occasionally chats to farmers, I know exactly the type we are talking about here.

        • “the disabling paradox of modern ‘conservatism’: that it wants simultaneously to liberate market forces and to lament their effects. Hence the deep structural dilemma of the modern Tory social critic: the forces that are destroying all that he loves are the forces he is committed to supporting.”

          Spot on. Liberalism too. I’ll read this piece.

          • I also like this (abridged) passage, early on in Collini’s piece:

            … various interests, not all benign, can be served by portraying the present as a sad decline from a more agreeable past. If such – always selective – accounts are to rise above the level of dyspeptic grumbling, they must, first, work with an informed understanding of relevant conditions in earlier periods. Second, they need an analytical framework with sufficient explanatory power to latch onto real change. And, finally, they must appeal to an idea of well-being that will enable some kind of balance-sheet to be drawn up. Letters from ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ do not meet these requirements.

            Nor do most of those book-length jeremiads of the last century [which rest] on a misty idea of ‘essential Englishness’, against which the pathology of the present could be measured and ‘England’ identified with the countryside.

            Mr and Mrs Scruton farm near Malmesbury. Mr Scruton, like other farmers, thinks England is going down the pan.

            This reminds me of a comment you recently made on another post – can’t for the mo locate it but I think I have the gist – that nostalgia over a mythically halcyon past is always reactionary.

            • Nostalgia is one of the most common and understandable moods. In itself, it is a pleasing thing and possibly even indispensable to a person’s individual health. But it is essential to take a critical view of …well, everything, I think. (The unexamined life is not worth living and all that.)

              I reason like this: If you were lucky enough to be born into an affluent country in peace time and you had loving and responsible parents then inevitably you will have a rosy recollection of your childhood. But you should be honest enough to admit that those days seem idyllic to you now because back then you did not have adult stresses (and even then, you forget childhood stresses!) More to the point, you should acknowledge that adults back then were not in your happy position.

              I grew up in the 60s and 70s and have pleasant memories, but I know my father drifted through jobs he really didn’t’ like. Furthermore, even if a time really does seem generally pleasant, it is irrecoverable. Yes, the post war years gave us an enviable world for a while. But that’s gone now. (And you should always admit that there were ugly things going on then too. It’s easy to think the world was an innocent place when you yourself were innocent i.e. ignorant.)

              Now Roger Scruton is an odd one who really did seem to have been totally enmeshed in this nostalgic glow. And it wasn’t just his own personal youth he harked back to. He really did seem to swallow that cutesy Wodehouse image of Merrie Olde England. And yes, venturing into avenues related to him takes us down a dark realm populated by the most ferocious reactionaries. All of which seems sad because he was intelligent and even came up with some perceptive remarks (I particularly like his description of the internet: “the arctic vacancy of cyberspace”) But, as Terry Eagleton once said, the romantic and the rationalist always battled it out in Scruton’s breast and, eventually, it was the romantic that won.

  3. Phil – you did us all a service – and worked in all our interests – in sticking to your principles and pursuing Hallam relentlessly as you have done. In fact, the light you were able to thereby shine on these unscrupulous employment practices in relation to zero hour lecturers is unprecedented and stands out as a unique case, as far as I am aware. From my own experience there were many other incidences and ways at Hallam in which Associate Lecturers were given the sharp end of the stick. But what is particularly interesting – and disturbing – in your account is that there were two elected staff members of the Board of Governors at the relevant time when the Board did the deed: I think I know who they were – both union members if so. I wonder whether they did anything to resist these moves?

    • Peter let me grab the op to say you were one of those colleagues – they did and do exist – who raised heads above parapet. This is as good a place as any to thank you all.

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