Lorena Gazzotti is a Junior Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College and CRASSH. She is also the Vice-President of the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union (UCU), where she has been organising casual workers in both the University and the Colleges since 2018.
A few years back, a friend forwarded me an email she had received from a department which seemed short on undergraduate supervisors. I had been supervising for two years by that point, and found supervision pay derisory at best. But my PhD funding was coming to an end, and I had had no luck on the academic job market. I reluctantly signed up to the list of available supervisors, hoping to guarantee myself some back-up income for the challenging months ahead. To my complete outrage, the department adopted a system of distributing supervisees that resulted in huge inequalities in the number of students allocated to different supervisors. This resulted in different people doing largely the same amount of (unpaid) preparation for significantly different take-home pay. I protested the distributional injustice to the department, to no avail. Ironically, the course I was due to supervise was about poverty and inequality.
That week, I stopped automatically deleting the weekly emails I had been receiving by the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union representing academic, academic-related and research staff in Higher Education. As many others, I had joined the union on the back of the 2018 USS strikes, completely in awe at the crowds of people demanding respect and better working conditions for themselves. As it happens, one of the first emails I actually started reading contained a link to a survey on Hourly-Paid Teaching. The survey included an invitation to sign up to a mailing list. The mailing list advertised a meeting for casual staff. That meeting was the start of a journey into what casualised Cambridge is, and why things do not have to stay the way they are.
What is Cambridge?
At first sight, ‘Cambridge’ might seem like a homogenous entity. It is most definitely not. From an employment perspective, what we understand by ‘Cambridge’ is in reality a network of 32 separate legal entities – 1 University and 31 Colleges. The University and the Colleges are incredibly different in staff sizes – the University hires over 12000 members of staff, while the Colleges employ no more than a few hundred each (with considerable variation amongst them). The Colleges also engage close to 5000 undergraduate supervisors that are, for the large part, considered self-employed, and so not formally included in the staff count.
Policy-wise, the Collegiate University is extremely heterogeneous. While the University is part of the national pay bargaining, the Colleges are not, and each of them decide their own pay scales and pay rises. This is what determines a situation where to the same titles might correspond starkly different working conditions. In 2022, for example, the starting salary for a Junior Research Fellow at Selwyn College, was 20,086 GBP/year + benefits. A Junior Research Fellow at Newnham College was instead paid 34,308 GBP/year + benefits. Each of the 32 employers adopt their own set of HR policies, including different Grievance and Dignity at Work policies. Even though both the University and the Colleges are part of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), different employers in the Collegiate University apply different criteria as to which members of staff can enroll in USS: for example, an assistant librarian in one of the Colleges might be able to pay into USS, while an assistant librarian in another College might not qualify for USS, and therefore might be placed into a different pension scheme.
From an affective point of view, the overlapping of different institutions in the delivery of research and teaching creates a disjuncture between lived and actual coworking relations. People who work together on an everyday basis and cognitively feel like colleagues (think, for example, of postdocs sharing the same office in the University) might not actually be coworkers: some might be University employees, some might be employed by a College as Junior Research Fellows. Similarly, there might be a difference between lived and actual employment relations: someone might feel like they are working for the University, when they are actually working for a College. This is typically the case of undergraduate supervisors who teach in subjects where supervisions are organised centrally by departments: the emails they receive regarding supervisions are sent by the department, the training they attend is organised by the department, the person they experience as a ‘line-manager’ is a University course coordinator. But in reality, their formal line manager is a Director of Studies in a College, and the institution paying them is a College. The set-up of the Collegiate University, in other words, effectively distorts structures of perceived institutional belonging: the workplace does not neatly map onto someone’s everyday working space, working with someone thus does not actually mean being someone’s coworker.
What is casualisation?
Casualisation is not a homogenous condition either. In broad terms, it describes all employment relations that are less stable than a permanent contract. This includes situations as different as working on fixed-term employment contract (for example, a fixed-term researcher employed on an ERC project), on a zero-hours workers’ agreement (for example, a Tier4 visa student supervising for a College), or as self-employed in gig economy-like conditions (as it is the case, for example, of most undergraduate supervisors).
The common situation shared by casualised workers is the transience characterising their working conditions: work is there now, but possibly not for long. The different set of commitments that the employers make as to when work might be taken away determine different (and variably severe) degrees of casualisation. Work can be taken away at any moment, in the case of gig-economy conditions and zero-hours contracts; after a guaranteed minimum number of hours, in the case of guaranteed minimum hours contract; only after a certain established period of time, in the case of fixed-term contracts. The law establishes limits that bind the employers to ensure minimum levels of rights to certain kind of casualised workers: being on an employment contract for over two years, for example, entitles staff to statutory redundancy pay in case an employer dismisses you by reason of redundancy. This normally does not apply to people who were employed for less than two years, or to staff who are classified as workers rather than employees (regardless of the length of their appointment). Many people in the Collegiate University are classified as workers rather than employees, including demonstrators at the University and Junior Research Fellows in several Colleges.
The transience of an employment relation translates into a very tangible and devouring lived experience. Casualisation prevents people from making solid life plans. Getting a mortgage? Out of question. Moving your family closer to where you work? At what end, if no one can guarantee you will be still working at that particular institution in a year’s time. Simple things like investing in local relationships (be they establishing friendships, becoming a volunteer in a local charity, or forming romantic relationships) are hindered by the question marks pervading your future employment whereabouts. Many precarious workers at Cambridge cannot really afford to live in Cambridge: this is not only because the city is unaffordable, but because short-term contracts make it completely impractical to stably move to Cambridge for the purpose of the job. Casualised staff are often forced into long and expensive commutes and uncomfortable housing situations (for a particular severe case at Royal Holloway, see this Guardian article). Precarity, a lot of the times, also translates into a feeling of loneliness and dislocation: changing city on a yearly basis means building networks of support from scratch, changing country on a yearly basis means learning a new social security system, a new immigration system, a new academic system from scratch. Casualisation also works against unionisation: half of the people that I first met at the first UCU meeting for casual staff that I attended had left the University within a year.
Do things have to stay the same?
What do universities gain from casualisation? What does Cambridge gain from maintaining staff into a precarious situation? Can people really give the best of themselves in research and teaching when part of their mind is constantly preoccupied with guaranteeing the most basic forms of subsistence in the near future? The answer is easy: no, they cannot. Anyone who has ever been on a casual contract knows that precarious staff spend large chunks of time in the last months (or last year) of employment writing extremely time-consuming job and grant applications. I myself was a much better researcher in the first year of my three-year junior research fellowship than in the last year of my PhD. Was this because my brain had suddenly matured in the meantime? No, it was because I could actually spend 100% of my working time on my research, and I had the headspace to read, think, read again before writing.
We know that things do not have to be this way. Other universities have made radically different choices. After a very long fight and negotiation process with the local UCU branch, in 2022 the Open University last year moved 4800 casually employed Associate Lecturers (ALs) onto permanent contracts, in the biggest decasualisation programme ever seen in UK Higher Education. Crucially, these contracts do not only recognise the teaching work that ALs had been doing so far: it also introduces paid research time for ALs to stay abreast latest scholarship developments. The reform at the Open University recognised a simple principle: that to be able to deliver cutting-edge teaching, staff need stability and paid research time too. The new contracts for ALs did not only considerably changed the working conditions and respect at work enjoyed by 50% of staff at the Open University. It also slashed by 15% the casualisation rate across UK Higher Education. One only has to do a quick search on social media to find testimonies of staff whose life has been completely changed, for the better, by this bold, long-in-the-making, ambitious decasualisation move.
In 2019, after over a year of sustained campaigning from Cambridge UCU members, the University of Cambridge committed to two ambitious reforms aiming at reviewing the use of fixed-term contracts in the University, and at moving hourly-paid teaching staff who had been teaching regularly onto secure contracts. Between late 2019 and early 2020, around 300 fixed-term members of staff whose role was continuing in nature were moved onto open-ended contracts. In late 2022, hourly-paid teaching staff also started being moved onto the new contracts, but it is too early to estimate the magnitude of the reform and whether the new contracts go far enough in recognising the time actually invested by staff on their teaching and preparation duties. In the meantime, undergraduate supervisors have been demanding the Colleges to provide them with increased pay, paid training, and secure contracts for four years now. Despite rounds of meetings and increasingly more assertive escalations, the Colleges have still not met any of these demands.
How different would the Collegiate University be if teachers and researchers had the headspace to fully focus on students and scholarship, rather than on how to pay rent the month after? How different would Cambridge be if the people who inhabit it had the headspace to invest in local relationships, working or otherwise? In 2020/21, the University of Cambridge counted 2207 people doing hourly-paid teaching. In 2020/21, the 31 Colleges engaged 4964 undergraduate supervisors. The potential for the second biggest decasualisation programme in UK Higher Education is here. The people have been demanding it, for years. It’s up to Cambridge to decide to do the right thing. For us, and for everybody else.
 Information obtained through FOI request.