Thursday, June 06, 2013

Universities - exploiting the casual economy

The university has a gleaming reputation. There are stellar names on its website, known on TV, some even in celebrity mags - pop stars, famous historians or inventors. 
The names might stop students looking too closely at its rankings, might be a justification of the £9,000 a year they will pay to be taught, but what happens after Fresher's Week?
This autumn, students currently sitting their A levels will find their cohort of teachers are in fact a hotch-potch of casual workers who may have been employed over the phone, by word of mouth, because they are friends of friends, who are given a code for the photocopier if they're lucky but nowhere to make a cup of tea. 
They will find people working five hours a week, some six, some four, who don't know each other, have probably never met, who have probably never met a member of academic staff and have no sense of being part of the noble institution as advertised.
They will find their teachers may not be paid for tutorials, or if they are, the tutorial time allowed is 10 minutes. Teachers may not be paid for marking, or if they are, the amount of time allocated is about 15 minutes. 
They will find a hierarchy within their university, with rich, highly paid professors and visiting celebrities at the top and hourly paid lecturers at the bottom, unacknowledged, rather like the Persian cleaner in Jan Arnald's brilliant TV series Arne Dahl.
If they are unlucky, they will encounter bitterness and resentment, laziness and incompetence. If they are lucky, they will encounter people who teach out of the love of a subject and commitment to young people (who may have children of the same age). 
When Micky Mouse and the Lone Ranger were casual compositors in Fleet Street they were moonlighting, but as Fleet Street was rebuilt as a new empire in the old Docklands, it became clear casual workers could do more than moonlight - they could replace the traditional workforce with its regulations, job security and unions. 
Of course there have always been rogue industries like hotels, restaurants, cleaning, agriculture with cash in hand employers who pay little attention to safety, unions or law. 
Traditionally, safe jobs were in government, the health service and academia where there was security of tenure - jobs for life.
Now in UK universities, the number of staff teaching on temporary contracts is continuing to rise - more than a third of academics are on them. On top of that, there are 80,000 hourly paid teachers/lecturers.
My daughter could be a candidate for the £9,000 a year university experience. She's very wisely decided to do a third (free) year in further education when she finishes her A levels. 
How will it shake out? Will students begin to ask how their money's being spent? I would.
Will standards be set for the quality of feedback on assignments, length of feedback, length of time allowed for tutorials, one to one time? They're long overdue.
A casual workforce exploits the hourly paid individual and exploits the student unless it is brilliantly managed, the pay is fair and the hours reflect the work that casual puts in.
But it is no model for the future unless compensation for being casual makes it worthwhile and reflects the amount the students are paying to keep the top tier in highly paid jobs with perks, status, a sense of belonging and offices with coffee machines.