The Two Tier Future of Employment in UK Higher Education

Please note the update at the end which I added a few hours after posting this.

From discussion of TeachHigher at the last meeting of the University of Warwick’s Board of Graduate Studies:

That ‘TeachHigher’ would eventually become the sole method of recruiting temporary academic staff within the University, noting its flexibility to meet both the requirements for appointing PGR students to undertake single/short term teaching duties, and filling longer-term temporary teaching appointments, with the aspiration to operate as a commercial franchise, akin to Unitemps;

Even if it’s true that, as a recent statement put it, “hourly teaching and research will never be outsourced at Warwick”, it’s hard to see what to make of the stated ambition for this to “operate as a commercial franchise” other than that the university intends that hourly teaching and research will be outsourced elsewhere. The fact that it is listed as an “academic services department” means very little. Unitemps is listed as an academic services department and, as anyone who has ever filled out a self-assessment tax return when employed by them will know, it’s for all intents and purposes a distinct entity.

While the university has seemingly removed the terms & conditions from the Teach Higher website, I found a copy online here. There’s an important question concerning preparatory work that I haven’t seen discussed: the document states clearly that “All intellectual property conceived or made by you (either alone or with others) in the course of any Assignment will belong to the Client”. As I discovered last year when convening a masters module for the first time, producing a term’s worth of lecture slides & a module handbook is an incredibly time consuming process (one that reduced my superficially generous wage to a fraction of what I’d assumed it would be). There’s probably an inherent difficulty in formulating a policy due to the variability of practice across ‘assignments’ but it strikes me as urgent that Teach Higher offer clarification about the expectation of this work being adequately quantified in terms of the hours of an assignment in a way commensurable with the explicit rejection of any claim of intellectual property by the employee.

It’s also unclear to me about the status of “longer-term temporary teaching appointments”. This might be something I’ve personally failed to grasp but are they talking about teaching fellows here? Otherwise I can’t see what the contrast between “single/short term teaching duties” and “longer-term temporary teaching appointments” communicates. It seems important that the university clarify whether teaching fellows might eventually be brought into this scheme and for that matter whether research fellows are coming to be brought into the parallel Unitemps system. My experience of the latter, as someone who relied on this work for 6 years as an unfunded part-time PhD student, is that growing quantities of part-time research associate work appeared over that time. All the arguments Warwick are making about the benefits of clarity, normalising best practice and the virtues of combining centralised management & payroll with reference to temp staff could be made about fixed-term employment as well.

I find it easy to imagine a near-future higher education system in which fixed term research & teaching staff are employed by outsourced agencies (well, ‘in sourced’ at Warwick). These become an ambition in themselves for many, as the unbundling of heretofore discrete functions leads to a proliferation of short-term temporary contracts, leading many to be reliant upon assembling a portfolio of fractional assignments to make ends meet. Meanwhile ‘research internships’ and ‘unpaid studentships’ thrive, as a widely recognised narrowing of future opportunities leads those with the resources to be ever more willing to work for free. I hope I’m wrong but I see nothing in these developments to make me think that I am.

Edited to add: I’ve just read a further clarification circulated two days ago that makes clear the potential franchising of TeachHigher would be a matter of the systems & brand being used rather than Warwick assuming employment of teachers elsewhere. However there has still not been, to the best of my knowledge, an unambiguous statement that temporary teachers will not be employed by a separate legal entity. It has been claimed that TeachHigher will not be a company but rather an academic services department. However as noted above, Unitemps is an academic services department and is a distinct legal entity: Warwick University Enterprises Ltd if I recall correctly. I feel slightly placated by some of the assurances about an expansion of payment for preparation time under the new system but more detail would be welcome, as would clarification about the intellectual property issues I mentioned above and how they differ from current practices across the various departments. It would be nice to have more detail about how and why teaching fellows won’t be brought into the system (i.e. why don’t the arguments made in favour of harmonising employment conditions for temp staff apply to fixed term staff?) but the entirety of the issue now seems to hinge (for me at least) about what legal entity TeachHigher staff will be employed by, the terms & conditions they will be subject to and the possible alternatives means of harmonising practice that have been foreclosed by this hoped for commercial spin off.

3 thoughts on “The Two Tier Future of Employment in UK Higher Education

  1. Mark, teaching fellows at Warwick are being let go, presumably to make room for TeachHigher workers to take their place. This is the case with me and the other TFs in the English dept. It’s part of the casualisation project.

  2. Oh, I didn’t know that. Very worrying. Sociology was recently recruiting for a 3 year teaching fellow post to replace someone on research leave though so it’s not a university wide thing. But I wonder if this is an exception that will ultimately be phased out.

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