I’m very boring, and so I read a lot of reports by charities, think tanks and trade unions. The University and College Union (UCU) last month released a new report, “Second class academic citizens: The dehumanising effects of casualisation in higher education”. Based on research by Olivia Mason and Nick Megoran of Newcastle University, the report makes for interesting yet profoundly depressing reading, exploring the ways in which increased casualisation and lack of stability in academia impact upon the lives of those working in Britain’s universities. This UCU report, however, while still very clearly one of these earnest pamphlets that Fabians shed like dead skin, is in many ways a creature quite apart from your standard quango fodder. 

Mason and Megoran (who could surely leave academia for a career as Sapphire and Steele-alike PIs) take the interesting approach of wedding cold statistical data with studies of “life narratives”, and in depth interviews about people’s personal and professional lives. I am not sure I have ever read a trade union report which paid quite so much attention to affectivity, took so much time digging down into the feeling of work conditions.

Unsurprisingly, the feeling of casualisation is a bad one. From the sense of inferiority that comes from not being able to have their name on an office door to the feeling that permanent staff never quite bother to engage with those on fixed term contracts, precarity creates a state of perpetual unease among those surveyed. Lack of stability means that workers in this position find themselves unable to take longer views, to envisage the arc of their career or their research as it might unfold in the future; everything becomes granular and functional. Endless treading water on short term contracts means these young academics also felt that the value of their work and their sense of themselves as researchers was under attack, as universities extracted maximums of labour for minimums of professional investment (or even basic employment standards). 

The UCU has the grim honour of representing a sector that has long been ahead of the curb in terms of casualisation. Higher education has been doing shitty working practices, of the de-regulated, individualistic kind that we think of as being oh-so-very-contemporary, since before it was cool: just 7% of researchers in higher education are on fixed term contracts; 6,500 in the sector are on zero hours contracts; 42% of teaching only staff are on hourly paid contracts. The situation is bad, and getting worse; in the last decade, the number of staff on temporary contracts has skyrocketed, while pay stagnates, hours fluctuate, and the UCU increasingly finds its members turning to food banks.

“Second class academic citizens” is a good read for anyone as yet unconvinced by the idea that our societal definition of class – what it is to be working class, or middle class – is sorely outdated. In the past it would have seemed impossible to argue that the people teaching in our universities, people with PhDs and publications to their names (and all the cultural cache that accompanies such), constituted any form of working class. Now, however, in the age of the zero-hours contract “teaching assistant”, those represented by the UCU are the perfect embodiment of Ash Sarkar’s young, educated, diverse, unstable, cash-and-asset poor working class. They cannot afford to buy houses or start families; and, as the report asserts, harsh experience is relieving them of the idea that natural progression to greater stability in their career is anything more than a just so story.

My parents are academics and so I found the conclusions of “Second class academic citizens” ultimately unsurprising. I did not need a report to tell me that academia necessitates punitively long hours for young researchers; that it mandates a hypermobility incompatible with a consistent and well adjusted personal life; that the best way to get ahead is not through any particular skill but through sheer good luck married with fortuitous circumstances – most often known as ‘independent wealth’ or ‘being a white man’, or both (women are more likely to be on fixed term contracts than men; black staff twice as likely to be in precarious academic employment than their white counterparts). Growing up in a house perpetually full of bright, interesting, passionate, transient, broke and stressed PhD students and young academics had already made this much abundantly clear to me.

The UK universities sector is, and has been for some time, a neoliberal disaster zone – a public service part-way through being murdered by the market. A loan system where student debt is sold off to private companies; shoddy and dangerously unregulated student housing; obscene Vice Chancellor’s salaries; universities cutting humanities degrees wholesale in the name of a “career focused curriculum”. Those at its sharpest end are those doing the bulk of the work- the very the staff who Mason and Megoran find “dehumanised” by their casualised conditions. The message of this report is clear and should be heeded: an education delivered by people in precarious traditions, poorly paid and poorly treated, can only ever be a poor education.