The rise of the precariat in FHE

31 Jul

By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research, Voice 

A large proportion of the workforce in further and higher education now consists of staff on temporary, short-term or flexible (sometimes zero-hours) contracts.  The economist Guy Standing, Professor in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, has written two influential books in which he describes such workers as part of a new and growing social class that he terms ‘the precariat’. 

The precariat are characterised by engaging in work which is insecure, unstable, unpredictable, often casual, seasonal or part-time, and often low-paid, at least in relation to its status or worth.  Many lecturers and instructors in colleges of further education or universities will identify with this description.

Professor Standing discusses his thesis in two of his books:

  • The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class (published by Bloomsbury, 2011) and
  • A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens (published by Bloomsbury, 2014).
Precariat or salariat?

Standing contrasts the ‘precariat’ with the ‘salariat’ – those with long-term employment security, high salaries and corporate benefits.  This is, perhaps, how work in the further and higher education sector was before incorporation, which effectively overnight turned colleges and universities into private enterprises rather than public sector organisations. 

Whilst some workers in this sector may still enjoy relative security of tenure with some economic benefits, the last 20 years have seen a shrinking of this group, with many former members of the salariat falling into the precariat.  This has been associated with budget cuts, austerity, redundancies, restructuring and an increased reliance on a casualised and ‘flexible’ workforce. 

Standing points out that the precariat is growing in globalised economies throughout the world, not only in the UK or in the education sector.  He explains that this relatively new type of work deprives workers not only of income but also of rights.  Precariat workers often do not enjoy parity with their full-time or historical counterparts in terms of access to holiday pay, sick pay, fringe benefits, predictability of work, training, and so on. 

This is the case even though members of the precariat may be highly qualified.  In fact, such workers often have to accumulate various qualifications in order to make themselves eligible for accessing work, even though these qualifications are frequently undertaken in their own time and at their own expense, and even then they end up being denied the very future which it was promised that their qualifications would deliver. 

Whilst it is expected that people should train for work, increasingly, people are undertaking additional training, not so much to improve themselves as to gain access to ‘qualification gated’ jobs, even though such jobs provide neither the salary nor the satisfaction commensurate with the level of qualifications held.

In contrast to Standing’s view, some other commentators see the rise of a ‘flexible workforce’ as a positive move.  It enables workers to build ‘portfolio’ careers, often balancing work with other interests or responsibilities and being able to optimise their choices and potential.  Such arguments are often used to justify ‘zero-hours’ contracts. 

Whilst this may be true for some people, others feel increasingly frustrated by the lack of access to stable employment and economic progression.  Perhaps it has never been more important to belong to a trade union that is attempting to safeguard and improve terms and conditions of employment. 

We would be very interested to hear of members’ experiences of working in further or higher education.

[Article written for August 2015 Your Voice.] 

Are you on a zero-hours contract?

Mergers in further education

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6 Responses to “The rise of the precariat in FHE”

  1. Wesley Paxton 01. Aug, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    Zero hours contracts are acceptable as a SUPPLEMENT to a regular salary or a decent pension, even if it is “only” part time probably at least 50%. There is a long tradition of freelance work, altho’ this writer’s experience is it must be easier to break into a bank than to get inside the “magic circle” that does employ freelancers. Having said that the late and much lamented Jill Dando was claimed to leave an estate worth about a million and she was under 40 at the time of her death, so some must be able to make it work.

  2. Richard Fraser 11. Sep, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    Schools Week: “Zero-hours contracts increase in education sector”

  3. Richard Fraser 17. Nov, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    From The Guardian: “University lecturers on the breadline: is the UK following in America’s footsteps?”

  4. Richard Fraser 16. Nov, 2016 at 4:43 pm #

    In Guardian:

    “Universities accused of ‘importing Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay”

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