From Casualisation to Coronavirus - A statement on the working and learning conditions at the University of Birmingham
7 Sept 2020
The Women and Non-binary Students Association Intersectional Feminist Campaign
From Casualisation to Coronavirus - A statement on the working and learning conditions at the University of Birmingham
We are pleased to hear that the University of Birmingham is honouring the offers given to students who now meet the terms with their revised grades. We are nevertheless concerned that the new unprecedented influx of students will create a vast amount of pressure for staff at universities, in particular those in positions of marginality and/or precariousness.
From the A-Level algorithm, the university bailout conditions, to the sacking of casualised staff, and the mistreatment of the student workforce, coronavirus has been taken as an opportunity to further marketise higher education. It has been a chance to make it less accessible for prospective and existing marginalised students and staff, and less amenable to radical student politics.
To combat coronavirus capitalism in higher education, we need a united student staff movement opposing the utilitarian reduction and further marketisation of higher education, and all that follows in its wake. This includes the mistreatment and ‘invisibilising’ of on-campus workers such as student staff, cleaners, and secretary workers, to the gendered, classed, racialised nature of academic labour.
The University of Birmingham has a gender pay gap of 19.4%. It is yet to publish statistics on the institution’s disability and ethnicity pay gaps, which of course, intersect with the gender pay gap. As of 2016, 70% of UoB staff were on fixed-term contracts, one of the highest percentages in the Russell Group.Fixed-term contracts (FTCs) and zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) exemplify the gendered and racialised nature of casualised work across higher education. The sector averages only 31% of white academic staff on an FTC compared to 42% of BAME staff (28% of white men are on FTC and 45% of Asian women are on FTC). While 3% of white staff are on ZHC, 6% of black staff are on the same contracts - this is a two-fold increase.
In light of the mass-sacking of postgraduate teaching assistants and teaching fellows earlier this year, the questions of labour distribution and working conditions have to be raised by students and staff alike. Working conditions and learning conditions are one and the same. In the recent UoB Staff Satisfaction Survey, one-third of staff (33%) said they could not cope with the pressure their jobs put them under. 42% say they are not given sufficient time to achieve all that is expected of them. And just half (50%) say their working environment enables them to undertake their work to the best of their abilities. At a time when employers’ commitment to the safety of their staff is absolutely critical, well under half of UoB staff (44%) feel that “the University cares about my health and wellbeing”. Across the sector, 71% of staff say insecure contracts have damaged their mental health, and 43% say insecure contracts have damaged their physical health. Staff say that 45% of their work is done without pay (i.e. outside of their contract). We can only expect these figures to increase, with the amount of pressure being placed on staff to process and make adequate provisions for university applications as coronavirus capitalism compounds and extends the structures of oppression which precede it.
Academic labour is inherently gendered, classed, and racialised. Exemplifying this is the plummet in women’s research during the coronavirus pandemic, which has revealed and destabilised the balancing act between domestic and academic labour that many women are forced to play. Sexism and misogyny succeed across higher education as women are silenced. Whilst we are told that education and research are a luxury, it is the work of women that is deemed dispensable through employers, working conditions, living conditions and child care access. This is just one example of why academia is becoming increasingly undesirable to marginalised students, who only find themselves represented in the higher education sector in positions of precarity and uncertainty.
Universities pride themselves on creating diverse student and staff bodies, yet continue to uphold ideals of white supremacy, colonialism, and heteropatriarchal capitalism in a way which seeks to exclude those who belong to marginalised communities or prevent them from progressing. One example of this is the attainment gap, which remains unexplained by senior leadership across the country. The attainment gap across the sector between white and BAME students achieving first-class or upper second class degrees in 17/18 (as found by research conducted by Universities UK and the NUS) was recorded as being 13%.
As discussed in Abolition Journal by Eli Meyerhoff, we as a society have consigned ourselves to the idea that “good” and “bad” people within a society should be kept separate (for example worker vs criminal). While the lines drawn between groups in higher education are more subtle than those drawn in broader society, they are no less existent. The emergence of the attainment gap points to the suggestion that those who occupy positions of socio-economic power should be kept separate to those who do not (i.e. the marginalised students in our community). Degree classifications often have a bearing on the prospects of a student after university, and the attainment gap attests to the fact that those who sit at intersections of power are more likely to continue to do so, and thus the cycle of power imbalances are perpetuated.
In relation to the current coronavirus crisis, it will be our post-92 institutions who feel the effects of the socio-economic status of its students the most. On results day, the grades for wealthy private school students remained relatively unchanged, meaning they were able to fill positions at prestigious wealthy universities faster than working-class students. The latter had their results determined by an algorithm based on the past performance of their postcode. It had already been decided for these young people that they would not excel or exceed any previous expectation, and many were facing the expensive decision of having to appeal, resit, or defer. It is important to remember that algorithms do as they are told; in this case, it was told to reflect the bias towards those students lower down the socio-economic ladder.
While there has been a much-welcomed change in the A-Level grading, we must reject the behaviour of some universities following this. For example, Durham University has said they will be offering a bursary of up to £1500 for students who accepted an offer to study with them if they would defer for a year. Students are being viewed as commodities, to be bought with a bursary for the promise of guaranteed government funding next September. We have to ask what sort of knock-on effect mass deferrals will have for future Durham cohorts and student numbers at other universities. As well as this, wealthier universities who can increase the number of places they offer will be making plans to do so. University cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Leicester will be filled with students coming from all across the country to study, and with student capacity caps increased we can expect to see another increase in the number of coronavirus cases. However, once this mass student migration happens, is it the students we should look to blame, or the people who put them there? Just as when our universities wouldn’t shut its doors when this first started, we see once again our leaders choose profit over public health as they sell us the “student experience” they promised in previous years; this is just how the higher education business model works. However, it will be the wealthy Russell Group universities which profit off this. Our post-92 universities are likely to be losers when it comes to student numbers this year, and being less funded in the first place means they will have fewer resources and less resilience to deal with each uncertainty the government is currently throwing towards the higher education sector as a whole.
Additionally, the very way in which the University of Birmingham uses casual labour to maintain our institution fosters a culture of exploitation. We have seen time and time again that the people who are most integral to the daily running of our university are the least supported. This is evident across the board, from senior staff being happy to not pay student workers (including postgraduate stipends) for months last summer, refusing to furlough their student workers during a pandemic, which left many unable to support themselves or their families during an already uncertain period, to not informing trade unions on campus of compulsory redundancies affecting the staff they represent. These types of incidents are not isolated to just our university and are symptomatic of an unsustainable model of higher education.
Revolution begins with a refusal to accept the conditions in which we live. We have to unite in solidarity across our universities not only to defend education but to reimagine it. In this radical reimagining, this refusal to capitulate, we begin to destabilise the university marketisation complex. In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein says “What we have been living for three decades is frontier capitalism, with the frontier constantly shifting location from crisis to crisis”. From Thatcherism to austerity, to coronavirus capitalism to conservative governments creating ‘crises’ of education as a means of tightening the stranglehold of capital on the higher education sector. As feminists and abolitionists, we believe in a world that exists beyond violence, where our education is not contingent on harm and exploitation, from PGTs to the student workforce, to the Edgbaston Park Hotel, to the Dubai campus: we have to demand more for each other. We understand abolition is not the end, but the beginning. To quote Arundhati Roy, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”.
 Aditya Chakrabortty and Sally Weale, ‘Universities accused of ‘importing Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay’, The Guardian (16th November 2016): https://www.theguardian.com/uk-
 UCU, ‘Job Insecurity in Universities: The Scale of the Problem’, UCU: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10502/Job-security-in-universities---the-scale-of-the-problem/pdf/ucu_casualisation-in-he_graphic_oct191.pdf.
 UCU, @university of Birmingham Staff Satisfaction Survey: BUCU comments’, Birmingham UCU (20th July 2020): https://birminghamucu.org/2020/07/20/university-of-birmingham-staff-satisfaction-
 UCU, ‘71% of university staff say insecure contracts have damaged their mental health’, UCU (3rd July 2019): https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10194/71-of-university-staff-say-insecure-contracts-have-
 BUCU, ‘Casualisation at the University of Birmingham’, Birmingham UCU (10th January 2017): https://birminghamucu.org/2017/01/10/casualisation-at-the-university-of-birmingham/.
 Anna Fazackerley, ‘Women’s research plummets during lockdown - but articles from men increase’, The Guardian (12th May 2020): https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/12/womens-
 Katherine Sellgren, ‘Universities told to tackle race attainment gap’, BBC News (2nd May 2019): https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-48121840
 Eli Meyerhoff, ‘Prisons and universities are two sides of the same coin: Eli Meyerhoff on Abolition’, Abolition Journal (24th July 2015): https://abolitionjournal.org/eli-meyerhoff-abolitionist-study-
 Michael Goodier, ‘Top A-level grades soar at private schools as sixth form colleges lose out’, New Statesman (13th August 2020): https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2020/08/top-
 Imogen Usherwood and Max Kendix, ‘Durham announces deferral bursaries of up to £1500 in the form of college accommodation discounts’, Palatinate (27th August 2020):
 UBSW, ‘September payday statement’, Twitter (27th September 2019): https://twitter.com/birminghamubsw/status/1177586312544690177; John Wimperis, ‘Revealed: How
UoB Let Down its Student Workforce During Lockdown’, Redbrick (31st July 2020, updated 5th August
 UNISON Birmingham, ‘Message to all Guild staff’, Twitter (18th August 2020): https://twitter.com/BhamUniUnison/status/1295711241755938816.
 Naomi Klein, ‘“Coronavirus Capitalism”: Naomi Klein’s Case for Transformative Change Amid Coronavirus Pandemic’, Democracy Now! (19th March 2020):
 Arundhati Roy, speech at the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, Brazil (27th January 2003).