Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Comment and Debate
  3. Crisis in Higher Education

Crisis in Higher Education

The current wave of protest that is taking place in universities around the world relates to the on-going marketisation of higher education. In recent weeks there have been strikes in universities in Canada, occupations in the University of Amsterdam and the London School of Economics. On February 25th 2015 precariously employed lecturers organised a walkout all across the United States (National Adjunct Walkout Day). The grievances cited are similar in most cases. Invariably, those protesting refer to a lack of democratic accountability, to increasingly exploitative work practices (reliance on unpaid/low paid labour), and to increases in staff/student ratios. This wave of protest is occurring partly because staff are being exploited, partly because teaching is being undermined, with students short-changed and ever more heavily indebted, and partly because the very idea of the university as a ‘community of teachers and scholars’ is being systematically undermined. With the view to sharing an Irish experience, specifically around the casualization of teaching at the University of Limerick, I am posting this short piece.

Provisional results from a survey carried out by the newly formed Third Level Workplace Watch indicate that third-level institutions are to the very forefront of the shift towards precarious employment in Ireland today. A considerable volume of teaching work (sometimes including the delivery of core modules) is now carried out on the basis of 6 month and 9 month contracts. As more responsibility is heaped on the shoulders of junior lecturers, more teaching work is carried out by lecturers with no job security at all – by temporary lecturers and so-called teaching assistants. These precariously employed lecturers are systematically thrown out of employment prior to permanency; and with further cuts to funding, the pool of unemployed and underemployed educators expands, creating feelings of isolation, vulnerability, demoralisation, a disinclination to join trade unions, and in turn, further opportunities to undermine conditions. The normalisation of short-term contracts is only part of the story. Third Level Workplace Watch has found that a considerable amount of teaching-work is also carried out by lecturers on the basis of hourly-paid contracts, by so-called adjunct lecturers. The prevalence of this in the University of Limerick and the Limerick Institute of Technology has yet to be fully revealed – though initial discussions with part-time staff indicate some conformity with the Third Level Workplace Watch survey findings.

The rates of pay for hourly-paid lecturers are relatively easy to find out, but these actually tell us very little. For example, we know that the hourly-rate for day-time lectures in the University of Limerick (in the humanities at least) is €50. And this does sound attractive. However, when we look at what €50 per hour really means, a very different picture emerges. Anyone familiar with teaching at third level (including most of those enrolled as students) can understand that lecture hours are really only a small part of what comprises the teaching role – it is necessary to prepare and write lectures, deliver lectures, set assessments, carry out assessments, answer students’ emails, carry out all kinds of technical and administrative tasks, as well as provide guidance on a daily basis. Given that precariously employed ‘adjunct’ lecturers take on all of these duties – exactly the same duties as permanent members of staff – the compensation is actually far closer to the minimum wage (if not below) than it is to €50 per hour. Apart from this, the hourly rate for tutorials averages between €20 and €30, but can be as low as €13 (the case with at least one humanities department); assessment per student is approximately €6.50 per student per semester. We know that on this basis, a part-time lecturer taking on a module with 30 students, lasting one semester – 12 weeks, with for example, two lecture hours per week and two tutorial hours (tutorials lasting for approximately 7 weeks of term) – will carry out all duties for less than €2000.

The role of lecturers on permanent contracts, or contracts of indefinite duration (CIDs), is typically divided between teaching, research and administration – with teaching assuming approximately 40% of the workload. This usually involves the delivery of 4 or 4.5 modules per year (with the other activities rightfully taken into consideration). Obviously, the research and organising work carried out by ‘adjunct’ lecturers is not paid, but that does not mean it is avoidable. It is essential activity to all those that intend to remain employable, and precariously employed lecturers only have a short breathing space before they must resume the hunt for elusive short-term contracts. However, most have little time for research and publishing; they must also work outside of academia precisely because nothing they do beyond their face-to-face teaching figures in their hourly claims, no matter the benefit to the university. Such principles as equal pay for equal work are abandoned as precarious conditions open up opportunities for exploitation. To highlight the inequity involved it is enough to consider the number of modules that would be necessary for an hourly-paid lecturer to take on before reaching the relatively modest salary of a junior lecturer with a permanent contract. It works out at well over 20 modules per year (which of course is impossible). Shocked yet? Don’t worry, it gets even worse. The survey carried out by Third Level Workplace Watch has also uncovered a sizable gender gap. Women appear more likely to be in hourly-paid work or to report being in precarious employment for 10 years or more (sometimes 20 – 25 years). The recent launch of the Defend the Irish University campaign has indicated that many tenured staff now realise this. Hopefully, more academics will now understand that researching the ‘working poor’ does not necessarily require field trips – that sometimes a glance towards the cluttered desks surrounding their own offices is sufficient. All of this fits into a wider trend toward the abolition of permanent contract positions in third level. Presently in the University of Limerick the best that can usually be hoped for is a 5 year contract, but all the signs indicate that even these contracts will be few and far between, that many third–level educators will have to continue chasing 6 and 9 month contracts, being out of work for the summer months, and relying on hourly-paid teaching work in the periods of strategically forced redundancy.

The drive to normalise short-term and casual-hours contracts in third-level institutions cannot go uncontested. There are at least some signs of an emerging opposition. However, until such time as precariously employed lecturers manage to organise themselves, they will be used to undermine the conditions of permanent members of staff. It is in the interest of the permanent workforce – and perhaps a duty on the part of those involved in the trade union movement – to ensure that all precariously employed workers in third level institutions get organised. This is precisely what Third Level Workplace Watch is now calling for.

Micheal O’Flynn, March 2015