Part 2

In the first section of this inquiry into labour casualisation in UK Higher Education, I considered casualisation from the perspective of employment practices, and looked at how these practices have been configured to facilitate the transformation of the university labour process around the demands of the mass university. In this section, I look at how casualisation has underpinned broader transformations in the organisation of university work, including the specialisation of teaching and research activities. I also look at the composition of casualised academic workers and the ways ideologies surrounding academic work map onto the function of casualisation in the marketised university.

The Specialisation of Academic Work

Casualisation has become a permanent feature of the employment structure of UK universities. Based on conservative estimates, more than a third of all UK academics are casually employed. In some individual institutions this figure rises to more than half (and this is only counting fixed term contracts).1 These figures indicate that casual academic labour is not a marginal aspect of the economy of UK HE. Universities are becoming increasingly dependent on a layer of casually employed workers to maintain themselves as economic entities. This is characteristic of the sector as a whole, not only small or low tier institutions, but also large elite universities across the country. For example, two thirds of all academic staff employed at the University of Oxford are employed on fixed term contracts and around half of undergraduate supervisions at University of Cambridge are delivered by independent contractors or staff on zero-hours contracts.

The incorporation of casual employment into the structure of university workplaces is connected to another major trend in higher education of the last 15 years: the replacement of integrated academic positions with specialist professional pathways (either teaching or research-only contracts). This division of educational labour along the lines of pedagogy and knowledge production has reflected the hardening boundaries around income generation in UK HE. Disciplinary mechanisms like university league tables, performance frameworks and research metrics have siloed the value of specific academic activities. Meanwhile funding sources have developed their parameters around these abstract benmarks. As a result, teaching and research-only posts have grown sharply, now becoming the dominant form of employment in UK HE.2

The specialisation of these distinct academic activities follows the changes in the university labour process outlined in the first part of this inquiry. The intellectual principles and social aspirations which once bound together research and teaching in one professional remit have been chipped away by the separate markets developing around student fees and research income. Where once there was an ideal of the intrinsic connection between curriculum, student scholarship, knowledge production and intellectual community, today there is a widening chasm between these spheres. But while one might expect that contracts with a dedicated remit might narrow down the workload of academic work, they have instead broadened out the different tasks associated with these two distinct areas. So much is this the case, that the minority of T&R contracted academics find it difficult to spread themselves across the demands of these remits. These activities, thereby, become the domains of specialists. It is now common practice for universities to hire star professors with track records for securing large grants to be given income generation as their sole professional remit.

At the same time, there has been a growth of casualisation across teaching and research-only contracts. In 2020/21, 44% of all teaching-only contracts were on fixed terms and 66.3% of all research-only contracts were on fixed terms, while only 7% of teaching and research contracts were on fixed terms. This represents a substantial growth of casualised teaching and research-only contracts since 2014.3 Thus casual employment has gone hand in hand with the specialisation of academic pathways and the growth of their respective financial markets. It follows from the market logic of conceiving teaching and research as separate areas of income capture that time limited employment is a purely technical aspect of specialisation which in no way compromises the objectives of either of these activities. In fact, insofar as the aims of these activities have become tied to two separate unstable markets (student recruitment and research funding capture) teaching and research-only jobs have become increasingly occasional.

The Composition of Casual Academics

How, then, has such a just-in-time workforce become so consolidated in the employment structure of universities? What factors within the academic labour market have made this shift to flexible specialisation possible? One of the main routes into casualised academic work is graduate progression. A large share of casualised teaching is done by student-workers; that is, people who are both professionally engaged by a university and engaged as students (i.e. paying for education). According to data from a 2012 UCU survey, around half of all PhD students carry out teaching.4 If this figure has remained constant, then there will be at least 38,273 PhD students in the ‘21/22 cohort teaching at UK universities.5 Presuming PhD students are employed on fixed-term or zero-hours contracts, this represents 47% of all casualised workers in the sector. So around half of all casualised contracts are filled by PhD students and this is around a sixth of the total academic workforce.

Generally, this double relation to a workplace (as both worker and student) has a marked impact on how these workers relate to their work, and relate to themselves as workers. Firstly, these workers are paying fees to their own workplace for a qualification that is expected to increase their prospects of advancing in an academic career (among others). Usually it is only by paying fees for a doctoral degree that one is entitled to casual teaching work - a foothold which is essential to future employment in academia. At one level, therefore, student-workers come to casual academic employment having already invested a great deal in themselves and their workplace in the pursuit of advancing in an academic career. To a greater or lesser extent, this binds them, ideologically, to the meritocratic system which regulates the hierarchy of academic labour, and conditions their perceptions of employment opportunities. In other words, this financial and subjective investment establishes a group interest on the part of student-workers in an aspiration to realise a return on their investment in career terms.

However, these financial and subjective investments greatly vary. There is, for example, a sharp divide in student fees paid by student-workers. On average, domestic fees for studying a PhD in the UK are £4,712 a year, while international fees are around £25,700 a year. The UK is one of the most popular destinations for globally mobile PGR students and in 2020–21 nearly half were non-UK candidates.6 This financial segmentation of doctoral students is a considerable factor in the divergent interests of student-workers in the sector. As are the different sources of funding used to pay these fees. According to data from 2012, around one third of PhDs were self-funded, 21% were funded by institutional providers and 15% were funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) research funding. Since then, there has been a marked decline in all external sources of funding for PhD tuition fees. In 2020-21, there was a significant increase in the number of self-funded doctoral entrants into UK HE, mainly attributed to the overall growth in the number of Chinese students. International doctoral candidates with no award or financial backing represented nearly 40% of the total doctoral population in ‘20/21.7 Meanwhile, the number of UK and EU students in receipt of the UK government’s Postgraduate Doctoral Loan (introduced in 2018) increased to 9,700 in the academic year ‘21/22.8 Coupled with the reduction of domestic sources of funding, these figures point to a general growth in the proportion of self-funded PhDs, with the majority of these paying international fees. This means a substantial number of student-workers arrive at casualised teaching work differentially burdened by student fees and living costs which far outstrip the wages they receive for paid employment.

A minority of student-workers will be fortunate enough to win external funding which covers fees and provides a stipend for living costs. Following a recent campaign to improve the support for PGRs, URKI has increased the full stipend to £18,622 a year from 2023-24. This is an increase of 19% from 21/22 levels. However, given that PhD students are working on average 41 to 50 hours a week on their research, this brings the current stipend to an hourly pay rate of just under £8 an hour (£2.42 below the national minimum wage).9 For those funded student-workers, therefore, the additional income provided by short-term university employment can be the difference between earning poverty wages and a decent salary.

Academic Work: Labour Discipline and Ideology

The prohibitive educational and financial investments of doctoral study are preconditions to entering into casualised academic employment. They determine the incredibly narrow demographics of PhD students and maintain the class character and racial profile of academic personnel at large (despite the massification/internationalisation of the student body). At the same time, these barriers also regulate the supply of labour to universities. Inasmuch as student-workers are subdivided by different debts and means to service those debts, and unified by the formal parameters of the PhD degree programme (workload, length of programme, eligibility requirements etc.), university employers are provided a high turnover of cheap, atomised, disciplined and highly-qualified labour.

However, the alignment of the labour requirements (supply and discipline) of the corporate university and the parameters of doctoral study is a highly contradictory dynamic - not least because the aspirational draw of doctoral study presupposes a desire for employment security backed by enforceable rights. This tension is captured in the pervasive understanding that student-workers are not employees proper but occupy a kind of apprenticeship status undergoing professional development training as an extension of their voluntaristic intellectual initiation via PhD attainment. This commonsense (often accepted by student-workers themselves) not only disqualifies the rights enshrined in casualised contracts of employment but also emboldens employers to test the limits of the enforceability of employment rights in general. If, according to the perceptions of academics as much as employers, the status of the student-worker renders employment rights conditional, this becomes a convenient way for managers to transfer academic work within the structure of the university to an unprotected class of workers. As we have already seen, this dynamic is exactly what is bearing the transformation of the labour process in universities: as the organisation of academic work is recomposed according to the demands of managing a mass student body and separate markets develop around teaching and research.

The disqualification of student-workers from employment rights colours all workers on comparable contractual terms including research-only contracts and cover posts. This means research-workers are often treated as though they have no recourse to employment rights - as, for example, when casualised research workers are the first targets for dismissal when funding runs dry. Likewise, the preconditions which regulate the demographic composition of student-workers, also shapes the composition of casualised research workers, as the majority of these post-holders are recent graduates.

The perception of student-workers, and by extension all casualised workers, as intern labour is related to the peculiar character of academic work and the ways this plays a role in determining the professional hierarchy of universities. Academic work is spread over directly remunerated professional employment within a workplace and knowledge production work (or intellectual work) which attracts various forms of symbolic value and prestige. While in the UK context, this intellectual work is increasingly metricised and quantified according to market imperatives, it continues to assume to itself an autonomous status attached to ideas of excellence, merit, rigour and so on. In this way, the exceptionalism of knowledge production work, which appeals to the order of educational qualification and academic esteem, forms an ideology which hierarchises on the basis of intellectual rank. In today’s corporate university, this meritocratic ideology exists in tension with stark professional realities as market savvy and management friendly academics grease their way to the top of salary scales and acquire the most prestigious accolades. But even while these double standards are plain for all to see, the ideology of academic value maintains its hold over bodies and minds. Where it remains most persistent is in the regulation of casualised labour. Indeed, it is the ideology of academic value - its ranking system and its conservation of the sanction of educational initiation - which forms the perception that student-workers are trainees rather than rights bearers (i.e. workers).

But the ideology of academic value and its legitimising hierarchies are showing some signs of weakness. Many casualised academic workers are becoming aware of their employment rights, and through this becoming aware of themselves as symptomatic of a broader crisis in the ideals of academic meritocracy. This poses a fundamental threat to the ideological vestiges of high academia - and with it the whole disciplinary apparatus which ties the aspirational subjectivities of academics to the interests of the market. The problem, however, lies with the preconditions for entering into casualised academic employment. The financial and subjective investments referred to above compel a high level of disidentification with the professional realities of the marketised university. In most cases, casualised academics continue to strongly identify with the work of pursuing intellectual contributions and valorising their academic status at the expense of recognising and challenging their paid conditions of work. In this way, many casualised academics identify first as academics and then as workers. And this is reinforced both by the negative professional associations of being an active labour organiser in the sector (being a ‘troublemaker’ curtails your ability to progress professionally) and the workload implications of making it as a legitimate academic (the fact is, you must work very hard and long hours to be a credible academic.) This ultimately diminishes the value of spending time and energy doing organising work.

Thus, the pressures of having to do work on the academic self (which is a very real force with which anyone working in the sector must negotiate) plays an important role in disincentivising people from doing political work. This also plays a role in shaping the interests of casualised academics and the forms of identification that emerge from an investment in intellectual status. This tends to bind the interests of low paid casual workers to that of highly paid secure academics who are their intellectual and professional superiors (both potentially supervising their research activities and/or acting as their line manager in the workplace). And the organisational structure of the UCU reinforces this identification, making it difficult to politicise the kinds of power imbalances that operate outside of the union between members (such as the professional hierarchy or pedagogical inequality).

Therefore, the survival of the ideology of academic value in the marketised university functions to regulate the self-understanding of student and graduate workers. This encourages a disidentification with the immediate conditions of their employment. As we already noted, the structural function of academic labour casualisation in contemporary UK HE is to bear the transformation of the labour process as the sector is subsumed to the market. The fact that casualised workers are compelled to disidentify with their immediate situation, and aspire to future secure employment, means there is little direct resistance by the bearers of this process - even while consciousness is certainly rising.

As has already been mentioned, this ultimately enables employers to put pressure on the conditions of ostensibly secure academic positions. The protections associated with permanent employment in UK HE are being eroded at the same time casualisation is growing. This is not to deny the very real differences between permanent and non-permanent employment (these should not be understated). However, the contractual rights which are supposed to qualify this legal difference are being undermined in quite vivid ways – for evidence of this you only need to consider how many academics in the UK benefit from the Working Time Regulations. Most academics are working well beyond their contracted hours as a basic expectation of their roles - hence the difficulties in carrying out actions short of strike such as working to contract. Or consider the number of fire and rehire and redundancy programs that have taken place across the sector in the last few years (Brighton, Goldsmiths, University of East Anglia, Winchester, Birkbeck, Liverpool, Kent etc.) These have shown the extreme vulnerability of long serving permanent workers to the logic of flexibilization.

These dynamics highlight the increasingly insecure nature of these formally secure contracts and the role that labour casualisation plays in regulating the attrition of the terms and conditions of secure employment. Insofar as continuous employment has become a scarcity in the sector, and the labour market is flooded with graduates looking to gain employment stability, those who are fortunate enough to attain job security, conceive of themselves as having escaped job insecurity. On that basis, they are more inclined to weather assaults on T&C’s in order to preserve employment security at any cost. And so, casualisation does not simply describe a discrete feature of the overall working conditions of the marketised university sector. It represents the central dynamic of university workplaces, bearing the subsumption of the labour process to the market while tying the desires and fears of all academic workers to the requisites of the market.

Outlooks: Strategy of Refusal

The overnight surpluses generated by the tripling of student fees in 2010 jolted the UK University sector into a trajectory of unbridled growth. In the initial years following the abolition of the fee caps, capital expenditure grew significantly as part of the outlay of university outgoings, as the scale of operations and revenue targets were reforecast in light of the growth potential of newly held surpluses. The rationale was that the long-term expansion and refurbishment of estates (along with the normalisation of middle and senior management profligacy) would be offset by an ever increasing in-take of international students. As the years drew on, the limits of this growth model and its uneven consequences quickly became apparent: the proportion of UK HE providers operating with an in-year deficit grew from 14% in 2015/16 to 27% in 2021/22.

Now, with the lifting of the student recruitment cap and domestic fee caps unchanged since 2017/18, the economic landscape of UK HE is in the throes of a winner-takes-all maelstrom. Russell Group universities are hoovering up domestic and international students and expanding their operations into further afield national and international territories. Meanwhile, the status quo for institutions competing for the leftovers has become a state of perpetual restructuring, as employers routinely merge and close departments and brutally downsize staff to cut their way to growth. This polarising dynamic, whereby some institutions are expanding without apparent limit and others are on a course for irretrievable contraction, has become the new normal of the sector.

This economic reality has not been lost on UCEA. Throughout the 2022/23 national dispute, the employers’ representatives have argued that the sector’s uneven development is precisely what makes UCU’s national pay demand untenable. As long as some of their members are in the red, there is no way UCEA can impose staffing cost increases commensurate with overall sector surpluses - so their argument goes. Given that an overhaul of the current funding regime is unlikely to transpire any time soon, UCEA will no doubt pursue this strategy of leveraging the imbalances of the sector against national bargaining.

To what extent this race to the bottom will be derailed by future industrial strategy depends ultimately on the objectives members are prepared to fight for, the composition established by these objectives and the tactics with which they are pursued. Despite the acid polemics which characterise their relations, the dominant factions in UCU provide broadly similar answers on these points. Notwithstanding their opposing rhetorics, the divergences of UCU Commons and UCU Left ultimately turn on the most effective strategy for delivering modest reforms to the sector - one argues for continued mobilisation/escalation around given disputes, regardless of their strategic function or political content, the other argues for a de-mobilisation in order to build power, regardless of the strategic consequence of forfeiting accumulated momentum and leverage. Ultimately, however, both aspire to a reformist end point - a more equitable distribution of the surpluses resulting from the marketisation of HE. Neither are arguing for a genuinely transformative programme for Higher Education which would effectively overturn the domination of university workplaces by the market in the here and now. The aims and objectives of their industrial strategy positions and the forms of their political address are predicated on the continued subsumption of the organisation of university work to the market, the continued polarisation of the finances of the sector and the continued use of casualisation to bear these tendencies forward. This is due ultimately to their shared investment in the bureaucratic apparatus of the national union as the ultimate consolidator of worker power and thus their deference to the formal constraints of codified industrial relations.

What is not on offer in any of the dominant discourses around the crisis of UK HE is a strategy of refusal that would reckon with the fact that affirmative professional identifications with university work or even modestly reformed university work are requirements for market subsumption to prevail. Relatedly, insofar as these factions prioritise the self-organisation of workers at all, they spend virtually no time thinking through the organisational difficulties and opportunities of cohering casualised workers around interests common to that condition. This is because they speak for and through the interests of permanent academic workers. As such, they assume an investment in employment continuity as the common basis for a redemptive political subjectivity - one which draws political will from a fantasy of an inevitable ‘return to normal’. Hence the diminishing returns on prolonged and fruitless disputes.

In the current climate, such a strategy of refusal is not an extreme proposition, even for permanent academics. It is merely the formalisation and collectivisation of impulses and actions that are already there in spontaneous responses to existing conditions; there in the record numbers of academics leaving the sector for new careers, in the forms of non-compliance which have met coercive systems of strike deductions and redundancy programs, in the wildcat actions led by casualised workers and in the various forms of exhaustion and breakdown which are now an inevitable punctuation to academic careers. These are symptoms not only of a sector in crisis, but of a workforce disconnectedly coming to the realisation that the risks of refusal are outweighed by the risks of allowing things to continue as they are. For better and for worse, these are also symptoms of a loss of faith in the effectiveness of national industrial power. But to begin openly advocating for a strategy of refusal, and the generalisation of its adoption, is not to deter workers from claiming national industrial power, it is to fundamentally radicalise its consistency and thereby vitalise the stakes of national strategy.

Theoretically, the natural bearer of an impulse to refuse is the casualised academic. In ever greater numbers, disposable temporary workers are being consumed by UK HE - not simply for their cheap labour-power but for the structural function of casualisation in bringing about organisational changes required by the market. This generalisation of insecurity in the employment structure of universities constitutes the precondition for a mass refusal - inasmuch as the risk of non-compliance is already incorporated into the condition of employment: i.e. non-continuity of employment. But there is absolutely nothing inevitable about the politicisation of actual casualised academics. The ideological and compositional problems outlined above are testament enough of this.

In this light, it is only through an intentionally coordinated network or caucus outside union structures that such a strategy of refusal could take up real consistency and effect within the sector. As anyone who has participated in a wildcat action will know, the individual capacity for non-compliance is proportional to the collective willingness to take ownership of risk. But as one also discovers, there are definite limits to what collective non-cooperation can achieve at a local level. What we are talking about here, then, is not a minoritarian culture of defiance and despair but a joined-up and disciplined generalisation of the wildcat form - one which could strategically regulate an atmosphere of ungovernability in order to effectively disarm employers’ extra-legal authoritarian offensive.

This would be a massive undertaking and the difficulties are legion. In the first place, the job of such a group would be to reckon with the concrete situation of casual workers as a mass, and soberly work through their ideological, class and professional fissures in order to map a strategy of refusal onto their composition. This would entail the production of a new subjectivity that could draw casual academic workers out from under the incredibly fragile meritocratic ideology of academic value - something we are already seeing in the US. Beyond this, it would be necessary to develop an organisational form which could accommodate periods of unemployment. Importantly, this would collectivise an exposure to life after work - an experience which is entirely central to a politics of refusal but which is individualised by the current organisational form of the local union branch. These are schematic coordinates but they represent the basic elements of an organisation that could channel the negating force of casualisation. At a time when HE employers are re-defining the legal thresholds of anti-trade union tactics (lockouts) and establishing new frontiers for casualisation and the exploitation of global education inequalities (distanced learning), a strategy of refusal is now critical.

  1. The following institutions had the highest share of fixed term contracts for all academic staff in the academic year 2020/21: London School of Economics: 59%, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: 72%, University of the Arts London: 62%, King’s College: 57%, University of Edinburgh: 50%, Imperial College: 52%, The Open University: 66% [prior to the 2022 decasualisation agreement], Queen Mary University London: 58% and University of Oxford: 66%. All stats from HESA. 

  2. In 2020/21, 56% of all academic contracts were teaching or research-only. This was up 6% from 2014/15. 



  5. Total number of PhD enrolments in ‘20/21 was 104,645. After attrition, this number goes down to 76,545. However, this figure does not capture PhD’s in later years of study, including part-time PhD students. 

  6. The introduction in 2021 of the graduate route and the extended entitlement to a three-year work visa for international PGR graduates has provided an additional incentive for global applicants. 





Roberto Mozzachiodi

Roberto Mozzachiodi is a casualised academic, a workplace organiser, and a translator.