The casualisation of UK’s Higher Education is real

In the week of terrible news about the casualisation of Higher Education workers in the UK, a colleague told me this sad story:

I have applied for a position of Lecturer at a private London university, which is located close to a beautiful park/campus. My application was to join them as a lecturer of their M.A. A week later from what it seemed a good interview and presentation, their course leader said I was better suited to the undergraduate programme instead. They had a module that matched my professional profile and the course was in need of an update.

The leader quickly sent me the syllabus template and suggested I could develop it from the scratch. I found it a good opportunity to have more academic freedom and did it over the year-end holidays. By the first week of January, the twelve lectures were ready, and after few adjustments conducted alongside the leader, I had finished the whole course syllabus and started producing the first lecture, then the second and so on…

What I found strange was that while the communication was fast and attentive at the beginning, in which I was informed the “HR communication with details would follow suit”, weeks followed without any communication. Actually, once my syllabus was ready, the leader has also gone offline for a while and didn’t respond to emails as quickly as before. With over a week for the start, I received a call from the HR, in which they said they got my email wrong and they would send me the ‘contract and details’, once the references were completed. Asked about how much the hourly rate was, the HR staffer responded with a Dostoevskian fatigue: “This is a casual job and there is no offer letter with such details”.

A few days later, I received the confirmation that my reference process was successfully completed. Now they should book my induction. Three days were missing to the start of the term and I had yet to receive the basic conditions of my hire. I’ve emailed the leader and received a few minutes later an email from the HR with a new welcome email and the suggestion that we should book the induction as soon as possible. No fee value for my work was yet disclosed. I replied insisting for receiving the fee information in advance. It was implied I should accept anything they offered me and what really mattered at the moment was to get me in, do an email for myself and my security badge and that’s it.

Finally, two days before starting, the HR guy replied to me with the expected “standard” hourly rates, which were exactly what I had earned two years ago when teaching at a bigger London institution. But, back then, I was just a PhD student assisting with tutorials. In this case, I had developed a syllabus, performed extensive bibliographical research, and produced material and activities for twelve 3-hour weekly lectures (which would be theirs in the end), plus assessment and advice.

By standard, UK universities offer 2.5 the times of a lecture to these extras for each lecturer, which is already arguable, as any quality lecture takes much more of time to resesarch and produce (a work ideally made by a permanent staffer). No one speaks of lecturing material, book lists, and activities as someone’s creative property. In sum, I didn’t find fair the offer and found myself profoundly unmotivated to go on with the lectures, or at least go for it without compromising the quality of my teaching.

On the day before the start, I sent to both the leader and the HR contact an email in which I regretted doing that, as well as the lateness of the whole process. I told them I could not accept lecturing on that proposal. They appeared to finally take me seriously. The HR guy called me to argue about what he saw as “a standard rate” and that “I had no reason to complain”. I received an additional pay offer; they started to include paid leaves, all that no one was saying before. Finding my refusal, the HR asked me if I wouldn’t join them only for two lectures until they found someone else. In the end, it was about having someone over there, no matter at what price or whoever that person is.

By that time, I had lost all my motivation not only because of their refusal to hire me on fair conditions (by that time, it was miles away from those of my original application), as I was struck by the whole banality of what Higher Education has become in the United Kingdom.

I did not want to punish the module leader by making them look for someone new with less than 24 hours from the start, neither did I want to punish the students, but I wanted to show how it felt being ignored for weeks and then “last-minute hired for standard rates.” Who would like to work without knowing at least the salary? Who would be on my side if I started these discussions after the lectures started?

Not only all my effort to create the course, research, join them was met with dumb HR processes and total absence of communication, as I had realised they were (maybe purposefully) creating a brand new course out of the work of a “casual”, as the HR had branded me. After receiving insults by email, I asked them: How can they expect I could do my best in such motivational, enthusiasm-based activity such as teaching? Was the original position I had applied for ever existed? Was I allured to a position that never existed and which has always been a casual job?

I had to carry a huge frustration for not giving a course which I had prepared for students, but I am happy that I could at least afford to refuse this precarious casual job because I’ve got another profession. I spare a thought for those who are faced with this increasingly inhumane Higher Education industry in the UK.