Debunking myths on moving teaching online this year: A perspective from casualised teaching staff at the University of Warwick

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This has not been an easy summer for students and their families. After a stressful end to the school year, with lockdowns, homeschooling and the A-level fiasco, students and parents are of course anxious to know what the coming year will look like. Unfortunately, we don’t think that universities have been transparent with students and parents throughout this process. Warwick Anti-Casualisation is a grassroot group advocating for PhD-students and Early Career Academics, who deliver a majority of the teaching at the University of Warwick. We have been teaching in various departments across the university, and we are concerned for our students and colleagues who are expected to return to the classroom in a couple of weeks, as well as the broader Coventry community. As such, we would like to offer our perspective on some questions that we have seen make the rounds in social media and universities’ communication.

In short, we don’t think that universities have been working hard enough to make campus a safe environment for students, staff, and surrounding communities. We therefore support the call made by the University and College Union (UCU) and its local branches to make online teaching the default option this term. This demand has also been voiced by Warwick Students’ Union and our local Member of Parliament, Zarah Sultana

We do not take this position lightly. We love teaching and interacting with students. We also do not think that online teaching is the perfect alternative but it’s the only one that is currently safe. Even with in-person teaching, the “student experience” advertised by universities such as Warwick will not materialise in a safe, physically distanced setting. As of mid-September, the existing plans of many universities, including Warwick, are unclear or they do not reflect the reality – which is that neither physical distancing or appropriate ventilation is achievable with the current infrastructure in place on campus. These plans also come in a context of massive job cuts during the pandemic, in which fewer teaching staff have been hired for the 2020-21 academic year. Meanwhile, remaining staff members had been overworked long before the Corona-crisis began. 

Going forward with in-person teaching puts the health of students and staff at risk, but also that of the wider communities in which we live and work. We had long discussions about these topics and put together some answers to questions students and their families may be asking themselves when hearing the calls by student and staff unions to move teaching online this term. The context in which we are publishing this document is in a state of flux, with universities and the government regularly changing their guidance and updating their plans. The following responses reflect our understanding of the situation as of 15/09/2020.

QUESTIONS:

Universities have made a commitment to in-person teaching. Why are you against it?

How does in-person teaching affect the local community?

University students are grown-ups and can follow the rules and be careful! Why do you believe there is still a risk? 

Universities have had all summer to prepare safe teaching environments. Has this not been successful?

Schools are reopening, why shouldn’t universities ? Are the risks any different?

Key workers in retail, healthcare, transport and more have been working in person throughout the pandemic. Why shouldn’t university staff? 

Universities have been closed since March, why do you not want to go back to work?

Are teaching staff just trying to cut corners by teaching online? 

Isn’t in-person teaching a better experience for students?

What about activities that can’t take place online, like labs and practical classes?

Why don’t you find a better way to split the workload among staff to allow for safe in-person teaching? 

Warwick is a campus university; shouldn’t that make it safer? 

Wouldn’t online-only teaching mean massive job losses at universities? 

You mentioned casualised teachers. What does casualisation mean, and how does it affect me? 

Universities have made a commitment to in-person teaching. Why are you against it?

We cannot tell the future – however, we can listen to experts and draw lessons from what has happened in other countries. The Government’s SAGE committee has warned that ‘there is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission’, and Independent SAGE recommended that ‘all University courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they are practice or laboratory based, with termly review points’ to protect the safety of students, staff, and local communities. 

Universities in other countries, which have already re-opened, have illustrated how fast Covid-19 cases spread. The United States campuses offer a glaring example. On 31 August, CNN reported 8,700 new cases in 36 states, only a couple of weeks after universities reopened. Though the US and the UK are not fully comparable, what happened there should alert us to what can happen here. 

We fear that the mass movement of students already underway and their attendance of in-person seminars pose a great health risk to students, staff, and the broader university community. We also believe that the measures taken by the University are insufficient. Colleagues are expected to teach in windowless and poorly-ventilated classrooms, when the Government’s guidance states that ‘poorly ventilated buildings are particularly conducive to virus spread.’ Meanwhile, the University of Warwick’s own testing facility is only open to students living on campus who show symptoms, whereas asymptomatic people can spread the virus and 75% of students live off-campus. This leaves us unconvinced about the university’s plans to prevent or manage an outbreak. 

In these circumstances, it is highly possible that teaching will have to be shifted online anyway after a few days or weeks if cases riseas has happened in the US. In fact, staff were told to prepare for the move to online teaching, meaning that universities are aware of this likely scenario. Some UK universities, such as the University of St Andrews have recently announced the postponement of in-person teaching. We feel that waiting until the last minute to make this shift, instead of announcing a clear plan well in advance, is inducing anxiety and unnecessary financial burden among students – increased by the prospect of ending up under self-isolation or lockdown away from home at the start of term, or risking to infect their families by returning home.
In a nutshell, even though teaching staff prefer teaching in person in normal circumstances (Are teaching staff just trying to cut corners by teaching online? ), the pandemic and distanciation rules mean in-person activities will be very different this year (Isn’t in-person teaching a better experience for students?) and pose a serious threat to the health and safety of students, staff, and our local community (How does in-person teaching affect the local community?)

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How does in-person teaching affect the local community?

We care about the health of our colleagues and students, but the demand to move teaching online is not just about protecting them. It protects the broader community and reduces strain on our local hospitals, at relatively little cost for the university community.

Students and university staff do not reside in a bubble, but interact with the rest of the world – even in the case of campus universities such as Warwick (Warwick is a campus university; shouldn’t that make it safer?). Many live with friends or relatives, including people particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Some live in areas affected by local lockdown measures and high infection rates. This means that in-person teaching, by increasing the amount, length, and frequency of interactions between people, heightens the risk that university students and staff may catch the virus, and that they may transmit it within the local community. 
We are particularly concerned about the risks for key workers in our communities (Key workers in retail, healthcare, transport and more have been working in person throughout the pandemic. Why shouldn’t university staff? ). Bus and train drivers will be under increased stress with the mass movement of students in September and throughout the term, and so will supermarket workers. Hospital staff will be affected by a rise of cases in the area. Many students will be key workers themselves, working in supermarkets and elsewhere to finance their studies.

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University students are grown-ups and can follow the rules and be careful! Why do you believe there is still a risk? 

Nobody can be trusted not to transmit the virus. We fear that even if most students strictly adhere to the rules set out by universities, this is unlikely to stop the virus from spreading. University accommodation is often crowded, and social distancing in shared kitchens is nearly impossible. The corridors in universities are narrow, and many seminar rooms are either too small or without sufficient ventilation to ensure that the virus does not spread. This is exacerbated by the daily movements of university staff and students, from commuting to and from work, to shopping in local supermarkets (How does in-person teaching affect the local community?). Moreover, given that asymptomatic people can spread the virus, we will not always know whether a student or member of staff is infected. If a student becomes infected, it is unlikely they will know before having already infected others in their flat or seminar groups. We want to prevent this from happening. 

Not only do we not want to risk the health of students, staff, and communities. We also do not want students to be blamed for outbreaks and campus closures by university managers who did not do enough to ensure that campuses are safe to engage in in-person teaching. The current plans are vague or impractical, for instance those for Warwick students living in off-campus accommodation, meaning universities can easily blame an outbreak on students’ noncompliance. We do not want to see students vilified in the media or the government for an outbreak that was inevitably going to happen. We fear that this will be particularly directed at international students, considering the racism directed at them since March

The choice to make in-person teaching the default option lay with senior university managements and the government: it was their responsibility to make campuses safe, and we do not think they have done enough. University managers and government officials should not blame the result of their own poor planning on students, nor on staff.

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Universities have had all summer to prepare safe teaching environments. Has this not been successful?

Most university staff have been working really hard to prepare for different scenarios – 100% in-person teaching, blended learning, 100% online teaching, etc. – as much as they could over the past few months. However, there has been a limit to what they could do before the academic year begins due to the ambiguous position of the senior management until the very last minute, as well as their unwillingness to inform, support, and negotiate with staff. Rather than investing into preparation and teaching, the sector has seen mass layoffs, especially for teaching staff. 

Even in a normal year, many academic contracts only pay for 10 months, meaning staff are not paid during the summer – a period of time that many academics dedicate to their research activities. Others, especially casualised workers such as seminar tutors, have  been told that they would not be employed for the next year and therefore could not prepare. Until now (mid-September), many do not know whether they will teach and if so, which classes, of which sizes, in which rooms, and in what conditions. 

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Schools are reopening, why shouldn’t universities ? Are the risks any different?

As students from previous cohorts will already know, universities are a very different environment compared to schools – though the later face their own share of challenges in mitigating the Covid-19 pandemic. There are three main aspects that mean that the risks at universities are different from, and higher than, those at schools. 

  1. Mass travel at the beginning of the academic year

Contrary to pupils and students at school who usually stay in their hometown, the start of the academic year sees millions of university students moving from all over the country – making up one fifth of all internal migration in England and Wales – and from abroad. If in-person teaching starts as planned, about 28,000 students will travel to the University of Warwick, all at once – and some have already arrived. Similarly, teaching staff on fixed-term contracts (a majority at Warwick) have to move every year, contributing to this mass migration.  

  1. Mass travel during the academic year

While schools are often in the same neighbourhood you live in, this is usually not the case for universities. At Warwick, students travel daily from Coventry, Leamington Spa, Birmingham, or even further. For these students, campus is often only accessible by public transport. The buses and trains at peak times are often packed, meaning students are likely to encounter many people without the possibility to maintain social distancing and properly track and trace interactions. Current employment practices in Higher Education also mean that teaching staff have multiple contracts at different universities and travel long distances to get to various universities they teach at, multiplying the risks.

  1. Social bubbles are very difficult to maintain on a university campus

While universities and schools face similar challenges with regard to upholding social bubbles, as staff teach across subjects and year groups as well as with students interacting with different groups of people, these challenges are amplified at university. Not only are universities much larger, but student accommodations often house a larger number of people, who themselves interact with many different groups in their various seminars. At Warwick, we have not been made aware of a strategy to ensure the 7,000 students who live on campus are accommodated with peers they share classes with, which would be necessary to operate in a bubble system. This system would also be impossible to impose on students who live off-campus. 

The risks are therefore, in our opinion, greater at universities than in schools. Providing online teaching to adult university students also creates significantly less practical difficulties than in the case of children unable to study independently and/or to be without supervision. Switching to online-teaching at university this term in the current circumstances therefore makes sense.

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Key workers in retail, healthcare, transport and more have been working in person throughout the pandemic. Why shouldn’t university staff? 

Key workers deserve not only everyone’s heartfelt respect, but also improvement of working conditions, as well as substantial pay rises. They also deserve that the rest of the country acts responsibly and minimises the spread of Covid-19, in order to reduce the pressure they face in their jobs, at hospitals and supermarkets, in trains and buses. The past few months have demonstrated how much key workers have suffered from direct exposure to the virus,  getting sick, having to shield their loved ones, and being forced to work to make ends meet. Preliminary research has also found that one of the contributing factors of BAME people having a higher infection rate is that they are more likely to be key workers. Many have had no choice but to attend their workplace in person, as their work cannot be done remotely. 

In contrast, many university staff can work and teach remotely without significantly affecting the quality of studies of their students while protecting the health of everyone. We don’t want to contribute to spreading the virus, including to key workers, until there are sufficient measures to protect everyone.

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Universities have been closed since March, why do you not want to go back to work?

Despite how much senior management of universities, media outlets, or politicians keep saying that universities have been ‘closed’, most staff have never stopped working since the pandemic began. While colleagues have been furloughed and some precarious staff let go, many people across the university have worked remotely – often in difficult conditions and while caring for children or relatives. Many university staff haven’t been able to take annual leave, both because of workload and financial pressures. In a normal year, summer time and other periods outside of term, university staff are working: exam boards, admissions, administrative and logistical preparations are managed by colleagues at all levels of the university. Teaching staff use this time to catch up on their research activities (an important part of their job which they cannot perform during term-time) and prepare course content for the next academic year. This summer has been particularly difficult as modules needed to be completely re-designed in line with a ‘blended’ learning approach and lectures fully recorded and sub-titled (Universities have had all summer to prepare safe teaching environments. Has this not been successful?). It is not about ‘going back to work’, but about welcoming our new and returning students in the best and safest conditions

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Are teaching staff just trying to cut corners by teaching online? 

Organising online teaching is much more time-consuming than people think, especially when lecturers and tutors use it for the first time. Talking to a camera is by no means easier than talking to someone in person. As teachers we have been professionally trained to do in-person teaching throughout our career so everyone is working incredibly hard to make the shift in such a short period of time, often with varying degrees of content-creation literacy, lack of functional equipment and insufficient technical support. We cannot say whether creating online teaching materials will eventually help universities cut corners in the long run. However, at this point, online teaching has been a challenge for most staff and has essentially tripled our workload: it involves things such as recording lectures and generating subtitles, planning new types of activities adapted to online learning, updating our syllabus to ensure material is available online, etc.. We would still rather teach online not because we are not willing to leave our (however challenging) home offices, but because we prioritise the safety of our students and local communities.

Both teaching settings come with accessibility issues. However, we think that these are exacerbated in the current circumstances for in-person teaching, which will not be able to go ahead ‘as usual’ in any case (Isn’t in-person teaching a better experience for students?). When students are physically distanced in a large lecture theatre and when teaching staff are wearing masks, students with hearing impairments will be disadvantaged. Significantly, many universities have not provided reassurances to students with underlying health conditions or vulnerable relatives living with them. 

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Isn’t in-person teaching a better experience for students?

University managements across the country are pretending that students can have an almost-normal university experience amidst the pandemic. As university staff, we know this will not be the case even if in-person teaching goes ahead. While online teaching, especially online teaching that arrives suddenly after a lockdown is announced, is not perfect, we think it is the better alternative to the existing in-person teaching plans. For instance, with social distancing measures, small-group work that is vital for many subjects is impossible in an in-person setting. Similarly, the informal chats between staff and students after class will not be possible, due to the necessity to stay distanced and vacate rooms as soon as the class finishes. Between wearing masks and staying one or two meters apart, this creates serious accessibility issues for many, including students with hearing impairment. Though online learning comes with concerns of isolation and anxiety, in-person teaching during the pandemic may also increase the stress and anxiety felt by students, especially those with underlying health conditions that put them at increased risk. 

This all stands in a context in which the move to online teaching during term is likely. We think that committing to online teaching before a major outbreak is not only the safe option for staff, students, and communities but would also mean that staff can focus their attention on one teaching mode, rather than preparing for three options (Universities have had all summer to prepare safe teaching environments. Has this not been successful?).

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What about activities that can’t take place online, like labs and practical classes?

Warwick UCU’s position is that online teaching should be the default, but that activities impossible to conduct online – such as lab work – could go ahead in person with proper social distancing measures. With only the minimum of people coming to campus when strictly necessary, it will be safer for those that do come. Strangely, some departments have been informed that seminars or supervision meetings (which could go ahead online easily) should be done in person, but that lab work will be cancelled for the entire year! 

We wish we knew more too! Universities aren’t providing information and they are not working enough with their teaching staff. So a few days before the start of term, we know about as much as incoming students. University management should have planned for this long ago

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Why don’t you find a better way to split the workload among staff to allow for safe in-person teaching? 

Many university staff are overworked as it is, especially those that are teaching. The workload of staff was already immense before the pandemic, which was one reason behind the strike in the last academic year. In 2019, the Guardian wrote about the mental health crisis amongst university staff, which was quoted to be mainly due to excessive workloads. These workloads were further exacerbated by the recent cuts especially to casualised teaching budgets. At Warwick, university management decided to cut the budget for casualised teaching staff, such as seminar tutors, by at least 50%. These casualised teachers deliver the vast majority of teaching at Warwick, so cuts to this budget mean that far fewer staff are available to teach compared to previous years (You mentioned casualised teachers. What does casualisation mean, and how does it affect me? ). The lay-offs were justified with the claim that a reduction in student numbers would put university finances under strain. However, we now know that universities underestimated student numbers in the new academic year –  indeed, Warwick is expecting a surplus of students. 

Another problem is that there aren’t enough classrooms large enough to accommodate safe in-person teaching either. Many rooms and corridors do not allow for social distancing and adequate ventilation, and accessibility issues are not addressed sufficiently. These issues in university managements’ planning also led to their announcement of longer teaching days, from 8am to 9pm at the University of Warwick, which will be problematic for students and staff with caring responsibilities and/or additional jobs. All of these problems were clear before the A-levels result fiasco, which led the university to take in more students than expected, leaving us at a guess of how this increase in numbers will be managed! 

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Warwick is a campus university; shouldn’t that make it safer? 

The Warwick campus is affectionately referred to as a ‘Warwick Bubble’ for its self-sufficient amenities and geographical distance from local neighbourhoods, but life at Warwick is far from concentrated just on campus. Most of our 28,000 students live off-campus. Many students also rely on off-campus employment to finance their studies. Staff also live across the country, including Leamington Spa and Coventry but also Birmingham, Oxford, London, or further afield and they commute to work on a daily basis. The geographical distance of the university from nearby areas does not deter the flow of people, which is unfortunately what contributes to spreading the virus. (Universities have made a commitment to in-person teaching. Why are you against it?)

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Wouldn’t online-only teaching mean massive job losses at universities? 

It is ironic that massive job losses already happened at universities, and online-only teaching contributed very little to it. Numerous fixed-term and hourly-paid staff were laid off over the past few months, because universities claimed that they would be under financial strain due to reduction in student numbers. Now we know that they were wrong in underestimating how many students would go to universities in the new academic year. If universities really care about online teaching quality, they should indeed bring back the jobs previously lost due to their financial short-sightedness rather than cutting even more (You mentioned casualised teachers. What does casualisation mean, and how does it affect me? ). This of course should also count for the 50% reduction in the sessional teaching budget at Warwick, given how instrumental seminar tutors are especially for earlier years. 

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You mentioned casualised teachers. What does casualisation mean, and how does it affect me? 

Casualisation means that fewer and fewer contracts are permanent, with most of the workforce now on temporary or hourly paid contracts. This has various negative implications. Employees on these contracts do not have job security, and often have to work across various contracts and institutions to make ends meet. Many are denied benefits such as pension or sick pay. Casualisation is embedded into the wider trend of marketisation in the higher education sector. Rather than being run as public services, universities are increasingly understood as businesses whose purpose is to make money. At Warwick, it has been implied by the University Council that sessional tutors, who are casualised workers, do not even provide work at all. Yet, it is sessional tutors who often have the closest interactions with students, and who provide a bulk of teaching, especially at the University of Warwick. 

You should care because this trend can not only lead to a deterioration of working conditions but also learning conditions. When teachers have to move to a new contract every year and are not paid over the summer, that means that they have less time to focus on the design of modules. We think that university managers should invest into their teaching and research staff, rather than in astronomical salaries for management and consultants or vanity projects and shiny new buildings. The current pandemic has not created these problems, they have existed for years. However, it has exacerbated them and made them particularly visible, for instance through the mass layoffs of casualised staff. Covid-19 has underscored how unsustainable, unfair, and detrimental to knowledge generation casualisation is. 

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The Government is launching an ideological assault on academic freedom and free speech

Warwick Anti-Casualisation (WAC) join the voices of UCU and NUS as well as the many staff, students, journalists, politicians, and members of the public in condemning the government’s thinly veiled encroachment on academic freedom and free speech in their Higher Education (HE) restructuring plans.

We want to echo the UCU and NUS statement in demanding that the government underwrite the losses in the HE sector as it has already underwritten losses in other, private sectors. This must not be a repayable loan but a recognition of education as a public good, a move to bring universities back into public ownership that includes subsidising the sector with public money and protect both the economic but also the social and cultural value of higher and post-16 education. This government has bailed-out the private sector in the past, it should now be prepared to do so for the public sector.

The equation of higher education with a ‘value for money’ job training scheme is not only profoundly anti-intellectual, it is directly opposed to a ‘commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy.’ Centralising courses and degrees around job market requirements quenches intellectual curiosity and boundary-breaking research that has the potential not only to generate new technologies but to change society and culture with lasting effects and progress. The metrics of ‘value for money’ or ‘graduate employability’ are profoundly inadequate to measure the value of higher education on a societal and cultural basis or to see beyond an understanding of ‘value’ only in economic or financial terms. The significant progress we have made as a society in terms of rights and freedoms for the individual and for the collective often have their origins in those parts of the HE sector that do not neatly fit into economic metrics. The project of social progress is by no means over nor are the freedoms we have gained so secure they could not be taken away again. We must protect the university as a public good and resist the idea that a plan that both requires ‘academic freedom and free speech’ AND ‘value for money’ operates in the best interest of higher education or the wider public.

As a grassroots organising group founded by PhD students, we rigorously reject the idea that Student Union funding should be ‘proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.’ Firstly, student unions provide a safety network. The Warwick SU Advice Centre, for example, provides assistance to countless students, covering housing contracts, legal and academic issues and more. Secondly, the current Conservative government simply shoots itself in the foot by oversimplifying the broad range of political activism on campus. In addition to anti-apartheid campaigns, liberation campaigns for LGBTQIA+, women, Black and Brown communities, FreePalestine and many more dismissed by the government as ‘niche organising’, we note that there has also been space for a number of ‘successful’ conservative campaigns, including recent pro-platform campaigns for highly problematic speakers. For example, a ranking IDF Officer was recently invited to speak at Warwick despite protests and concerns for the safety of Palestinian and Muslim students. At its best, our student body reflects the wider society and is not, as this government appears to believe, a fertile ground for rampant leftwing politicisation. The university was originally created as an exclusive space for the privileged and those conservative voices remain represented amongst our students We find ourselves disagreeing with conservative politics, but we would no less call for cuts to the funding of their campaigns as for the student campaigns whose activists WAC have frequently collaborated with in the past, such as Warwick Occupy or Warwick Labour Society.

We welcome the government’s recognition that ‘Vice-chancellor pay has for years faced widespread public criticism. And while excessive levels of senior executive pay may have been the focus of criticism, equally concerning is the rapid growth over recent decades of spending on administration more broadly, which should be reversed.’ We agree with this assessment and have long opposed inflated manager salaries and the artificial creation and extension of management and high-level administrative roles. Indeed, here at Warwick University we continue the current campaign to implement a salary sacrifice scheme instead of cutting the budget for sessional, precarious tutors. Yet, the language that accompanies this assessment is cause for great concern as ‘Government is also actively considering how to reduce the burden of bureaucracy imposed by Government and regulators.’ Rather than taking control over the rampantly marketised university and placing it back in public ownership, the Department for Education seems to propose to further deregulate the sector leaving it wide open for increased marketisation and privatisation. Deregulation does not work. Privatisation does not work. Marketisation does not work. The rampant increase of the manager class at Warwick, and this manager class placing the greatest burden of the current crisis on the shoulders of precarious workers, are only two examples of the toxic results of deregulating the Higher Education sector. This proposed government step of further deregulation will neither serve the students, nor the staff, nor society at large. We cannot oppose the government’s plan to further deregulate the HE sector strongly enough. 

In rage and solidarity,

Warwick Anti-Casualisation

The University of Warwick Council Response to the Letter Campaign is an Insult to Us All

We have written to Anita Bhalla, Chair of Warwick University Council. Feel free to use below text as template to sent an email to her as well: chairofcouncil@warwick.ac.uk

Dear Anita Bhalla, dear Council Members,

The response to our letter campaign leaves us feeling that we need to clarify a few things, as you seem to have misunderstood not just essential aspects of our campaign, but how important sessional tutors have been to the university.

You state that the University has “made a very clear commitment that a core principle of its recovery plan is to protect jobs.” You, somehow, use the plan to protect jobs by doing the exact opposite. Cutting the sessional teaching budget means that people will lose their jobs, income, access to the academic community, and in some cases their homes. It is a profound misapprehension that only PhDs teach on sessional contracts, and we regard this assertion as willful ignorance of the inner workings of the University. This is particularly concerning since you are the main decision makers at this institution and we rely on you understanding at least the basics of day to day operations.

The saving scheme that the University Executive Board Gold have implemented does not even acknowledge that sessional teaching constitutes a job. The salary sacrifice scheme that Warwick UCU developed and we support wholeheartedly, on the other hand, is designed to actually protect jobs and minimise the impact on the most vulnerable members of our community. Other institutions such as KCL and Edinburgh have already committed to such a scheme and even JLR managers have agreed to sacrifice some of their salaries to keep the business viable. There is no feasible rationale behind our management’s refusal to do the same.

The letter is incredibly insulting. You state that you protect jobs, while at the same time cutting the sessional teaching budget. This clearly shows that you do not consider the teaching sessional tutors provide as jobs. One quote is particularly revealing: “A top priority will, of course, be to continue to provide the highest quality education for all our students. A planned reduction in the sessional teaching budget is one such measure.” What does Council believe the University’s purpose is, if teaching is not considered a valuable aspect of its workings? This does not factor in

a) that more students have applied for universities than expected, despite COVID-19,
b) that more groups will have to be taught because group sizes will have to be significantly smaller, and
c) that permanent staff are already desperately overworked and the discontent amongst staff is growing.

How do you propose this university will deliver teaching excellence with significantly fewer tutors and a workforce overwhelmed and at risk of ill-health from a virus and from overwork?

 The cuts to STP lead us to believe that those who made the decision do not actually know just how great the impact will be. There seems to be a lack of basic awareness just how much teaching, marking, and student support Associate Tutors provide and how crucial we are to the functioning of the university. It seems evident that management is walking into this not only blind but willfully ignorant. How do you propose to lead our University out of this crisis without checking such basic information? 

Recently, the University issued a statement about Black Lives Matter, stating their commitment to equality. Where is the Equalities Impact Assessment for this plan? According to the May 2020 UCU Precarity Report, at Warwick University, 43% of teaching-only contracts are sessional (hourly-paid), of those 18% of contracts are held by BAME colleagues as opposed to 14% by white colleagues. Inevitably, the cuts to the sessional budget will affect Black and Brown colleagues disproportionately, rendering your promised commitment to equality as vapid as your continued refusal to engage meaningfully with Warwick Anti-Casualisation or the UCU.

Highlighting that the student hardship fund has received significant donations is not the success story you may wish it to be. You, as university management, are directing PhDs to it because of your refusal to implement equitable cost-saving measures. This adds insult to injury and is an implicit acknowledgement that your plans will drive members of our community into avoidable hardship. Furthermore, this fund is specifically for students, meaning it offers no help for the many sessional tutors who have completed their studies and find themselves in the unforgiving limbo of the Early Career Researcher, fighting over scarce (even before the pandemic) permanent positions and funding opportunities. Your aforementioned failure to recognise that many staff who are not students teach on STP contracts is reflected in the lack of a centralised fund that supports such individuals. To counter this shortcoming, UCU and WAC created the Warwick Workers Mutual Aid Hardship Fund to support all staff (regardless of student status) undergoing hardship. Sadly you have ignored UCU’s and WAC’s request to publish the Warwick Workers Mutual Aid Hardship Fund on Insite, thereby further obstructing staff whose livelihoods you are destroying from finding out about the fund’s existence and accessing financial support.

Lastly, we hope you are aware that your response contains an implicit acknowledgement that Warwick has been using International Students predominantly as a means to generate revenue and ensure the institution’s financial viability. International Students are a vital part of our community, and any prospective student’s decision to not join Warwick should not be used as an excuse for your mismanagement. This truly highlights one of the core aspects of Warwick Management’s poor financial strategies that has left the institution severely vulnerable in this time of crisis.

We are incensed by your response, by the fact that Council has neglected its duty to democratically oversee Warwick Management’s decisions, and by the fact that Warwick is prepared to ride out this crisis on the backs of those who can least afford the loss of their income. 

Warwick Anti-Casualisation

We ask you to reject the UCEA offer in the consultative ballot

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the injustices inherent in our society, including in the Higher Education sector. WAC have campaigned for fair employment rights for casualised staff for five years now and we are flabbergasted by the large-scale assault on precarious staff and workers at Warwick and across the sector. Now is not the time to retreat but to mobilise on an unprecedented scale.

Where initially we thought that we should accept the offer and write a better ticket for a future dispute, the developments over the last few months mean that we had to change our minds. While the UCEA offer at least acknowledges that precarity, pay gaps, and workload are issues UCU has a right to bring to our employers, the language of ‘setting expectations’ is now thoroughly insufficient – it will be too easy for our institutions to justify their decisions to maintain the status quo for permanent (underpaid and overworked) staff while decimating an entire generation of junior academics  in the current climate.

To accept the offer at this point will weaken our position significantly and will ring the bell for an increasingly unhealthy higher education environment. We believe that enough UCU members are motivated now to vote for industrial action if necessary and to make their voices heard on picket lines across the country. We believe that a better offer is not only possible but absolutely essential for a truly free and diverse HE sector. 

We ask our precarious and securely employed peers to vote to REJECT the UCEA offer and start mobilising at your institution and across the country to fight for our future in HE.

Warwick Anti-Casualisation

Email to UCU: Concern re. casualised workers at Warwick

(email sent on Thu, May 21, 7:22 PM)

Dear members of the Warwick UCU committee,

We, Warwick Anti-Casualisation (WAC), are writing to express our concern with the lack of engagement of the University of Warwick’s management with the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the protection of the most precariously employed colleagues and workers at our institution.  Where the recently published updated guidance on furlough maintains that those funded by public money cannot be placed on the government scheme, the University continues to fail its moral duty to use said public money to continue to pay staff and workers and protect them from financial hardship and visa difficulties.

According to the guidelines from the National UCU, the CJRS should be usedby branches as a basis of negotiation with university management to ensure job security of precarious workers. We understand that ultimately employers preserve the upper hand of deciding who could be furloughed under the job retention scheme and workers could not apply for the scheme individually, but we hope that united, Warwick UCU and WAC can make the moral case for the university to extend the scheme and put in place their own furlough scheme utilising the public money that should be earmarked for staff salaries.

We can see that efforts have been made by other UCU branches, such as Sheffield, Exeter and KCL, to pressurise university management to commit to extending fixed-term contracts to provide some peace of mind for workers on these contracts during this period, or to put them on furlough. At Warwick, as far as we can see on the most updated version of the guidance published today, management is not placing particularly fixed-term contracted staff on furlough which places many colleagues at risk of financial hardship and has severe implications for visa statuses of non-UK/EU staff. We ask Warwick UCU to keep pushing on the issue of furlough and make the moral case that those paid through public money should be furloughed by said public money. We unreservedly offer our support to campaign on this matter.

As WAC, we are trying to collect views and concerns by casualised colleagues who have been employed by the university of various types of casualised contracts, and feel the need and urgency for the local UCU to continue negotiating with the university on job retention on using public money to protect staff and workers. We also understand that the human capacity of the UCU committee is particularly stretched during this stressful period and want to restate our commitment to campaigning alongside Warwick UCU on this and other matters.

We would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your work in setting up the Mutual Aid Hardship Fund to offer financial support to precariously employed individuals at Warwick. We have included this thank you message and a link to the fund in our upcoming open letter.

Thank you very much and we are looking forward to your reply.

In solidarity,

Warwick Anti-Casualisation

On the Four Fights Offer – A statement from Warwick Anti-Casualisation

Warwick Anti-Casualisation (WAC), established in 2015, is an independent group of casualised workers at Warwick, and some of us are also UCU members. We held an emergency meeting on 22 May 2020 to discuss the three options on the table in response to UCEA’s offer in the Four Fights dispute. 

We came to an agreement that ‘accepting’ this offer will be the most strategic choice and wanted to share our rationale. The fight against casualisation, for equality, for equitable and manageable workloads, and for better pay continues, but we need to rethink strategy especially now that the baseline has shifted so dramatically. We do not regard ‘accepting’ this offer as a defeat or even a pause in this fight – we have been in this struggle, we are in this struggle now, and we will continue this struggle in the future.

We are deeply disappointed with what this offer contains. While it includes a set of ‘expectations’ and promises to make much necessary data available, it fails to provide real accountability mechanisms. However, we believe that the best way forward at this time is to make the most of the progress achieved, and leverage these gains to keep pushing on the issues of casualisation, equality, workloads, and pay at the local and national levels.

We want to be clear that we do not see accepting this offer as a defeat. We fully intend to continue this fight. As casualised workers, we are deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on the HE sector, and, here at Warwick, by the slashing of the sessional teaching budget recently announced by the University’s Provost Christine Ennew. We recognise that our collective energy needs to be directed at these threats to our own livelihoods and to the sector more broadly at this time (see our recent message to all casualised workers at Warwick). ‘Accepting’ the current offer will allow us to safeguard the hard-won concessions achieved by our industrial action this year, without precluding us from continuing to fight for further movement, at the local and at the national level – including through a new wave of industrial action around a clearer and updated set of demands if and when necessary.

We hope that our colleagues, especially those on permanent contracts, will take our position in consideration when deciding how to vote, while remembering that WAC does not speak for all casualised staff and workers at Warwick. No matter the outcome, we will keep fighting on these crucial issues together.

In solidarity,

Warwick Anti-Casualisation

Open letter to casualised workers at the University of Warwick: call for action

Warwick Anti-Casualisation (WAC) is working to voice the concerns of casualised workers as much as possible in these complicated times. It is important – more than ever – to organise and support each other. Please get in touch with us if you want to get involved or share your concerns. 

Like everyone, casualised workers must cope with hardship and inconvenience in their daily lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But our precarious status means that we are  particularly hard hit by our loss of income and the uncertainty over job security caused by the drastic changes in teaching, learning and assessment in our universities. Consequently, we would like to share the following information with all casualised workers at the University of Warwick. It concerns STP contracts’ notice period, the existence of a Mutual Aid Hardship Fund created by Warwick UCU and WAC, and other actions taken by WAC in the current context. 

  • Claim your STP hours as usual unless notified by department in written form

We would like to draw the attention of all tutors and workers employed via the Short-Term-Payroll (STP) of the following provision concerning income disruption in Term 3. The STP Terms and Conditions clearly state that ‘if you wish to give notice to terminate this agreement you are required to give one month’s notice in writing to STP with a copy to your departmental contact. Similarly, where advised by the departmental contact, STP will provide you with one month’s notice in writing should there be a need to terminate this assignment prior to the end date outlined above’.

In other words, you should still claim the hours that you were assigned in Term 3 UNLESS your department notified you about any changes in written form. If your submission of hours is rejected, please let us know for further engagement with UCU and the University’s management.

  • Apply for (or donate to) the Warwick Uni Workers Mutual Aid Hardship Fund

In collaboration with Warwick UCU, we have initiated a mutual aid hardship fund to offer financial support to precariously employed individuals at Warwick. The fund aims to address risks of hardship faced by casualised colleagues, especially those who normally counted on piecemeal assignments for income in Term 3 but could not get them due to the pandemic (e.g. invigilating jobs contracted by Unitemps on a case-by-case, department-by-department basis each year have vanished due to exam cancellation). Apply for the fund if you are in financial difficulties (or donate to it if you have extra money to spare).

Applications will open on Monday 25 May and the first round closes on Monday 01 June 2020. The fundraiser will continue and the hardship fund will reopen and continue to run until the end of the pandemic or the fund runs out of money. Follow us on Facebook (group: Warwick Anti-Casualisation) or Twitter (@WarwickAntiCas) to get updates and the link to the application.

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We are grateful to UCU for pushing the university on various front, such as to honour all existing contracts, including casual contracts, to extend fixed-term contracts until at least 6 months after resumption of business, to make sure no fixed-term contract is permitted to run out during this time, and to furlough as broadly and as generously as possible. 

Since the negative impact of casualisation on job security is systemic, we strongly feel that on top of immediate financial remedies, more has to be done. Especially for workers on contracts other than STP (e.g. VAM, Unitemps, fixed-term fractional, etc.), variations that create more segregation of employment conditions and visa implications, a more comprehensive strategy needs to be taken by the University of Warwick to ensure that casualised workers are not left vulnerable when society gradually transitions back to business as usual. 

This requires collective endeavour. Therefore, as WAC we are taking the following actions:

  1. Correspondence with the Provost for the implication of study leave cancellation on casualised workers

Two weeks ago, we emailed Christine Ennew, Provost of the University of Warwick,to request that the university address our concerns in their next communication to staff following the cancellation of study leaves for academic staff in the coming academic year, and the associated consequences for casualised workers. We were pleased to see that Heads of Departments are now forwarding a message from Christine Ennew to tutors about this situation. Yet we are disappointed that this communication is disparate across departments and that information is still being distributed unequally. This email addresses the move from STP to Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) contracts, but also communicates the concerning plans that at least 50% of the STP budget will be cut. We would like to point out that if the highest paid members of staff at Warwick, those earning over £100k per annum, agreed to a pay cap at £90k, the university would save over £7 million.  This would fully cover the STP budget, therefore making sure that casualised workers are not made to bear the brunt of the impact of COVID-19, as well as protecting the quality of teaching delivery next year.

2. Supporting collective requests on behalf of casualised workers

We can see that efforts have been made by other institutions, such as Sheffield, Exeter and KCL, to commit to extending fixed-term contracts to provide some peace of mind for workers on these contracts during this period, or to put them on furlough. We are grateful to Warwick UCU for the pressure that they are putting on the University’s management to make sure that the furlough scheme is made available to casualised workers. We are particularly concerned about STP, VAM, fixed-term and other precariously contracted early career academics.

At Warwick, we feel more clarity is needed in terms of the support available to precarious workers on different types of contracts and employment statuses, as well as an explicit commitment from the University to address the issue of furlough.We have offered Warwick UCU our support and willingness to collaborate and have asked that they inform the membership about the ongoing negotiations that are taking place with respect to precarious workers and early career academics.  

It is not an easy time for anyone in the Higher Education sector at the moment, especially when years of marketisation and austerity have led us to the current state of precarity. Therefore, it is essential to make the most of our collective effort to ensure that the University of Warwick lives up to the promise of our Vice Chancellor, Stuart Croft, to ‘protect jobs’ and workers. The aforementioned actions are ongoing. In the meantime, feel free to contact us to share your own experience or to become involved in future actions.

In solidarity,

Warwick Anti-Casualisation (WAC)

Response re. cancellation of study and research leave for academic staff in 2020/2021, and the associated consequences for casualised workers at Warwick

Email sent on 12 May 2020 at 9:35 AM (UK time)

Dear Christine Ennew,

It is with great concern that we, Warwick Anti-Casualisation (WAC), have heard of the University Executive Board Gold (UEBG)’s plan regarding the cancellation of study and research leave for academic staff in the coming academic year, and the associated consequences for casualised workers.

Your email states that university management expects an increased workload both over the summer and in the coming academic year, given that a return to campus may not be possible from the regular start of the academic year in October 2020. This email has not been distributed widely, rather you left it to HoDs’ discretion to disseminate the information which has meant that many casualised staff and workers have not received this information and are, as of yet, unaware of the plans that inevitably and unequally affect them in the coming year. Further, the expected workload increase, as you state, will be a result of significant changes in the delivery of teaching, both face-to-face and online. As a result, the UEBG has decided to cancel study and research leave, and to reduce sessional teaching hires. We have identified a series of problems with this plan. In this letter we would like to bring these concerns to your attention and request that you address the following 4 points in your next communication to staff, including and especially casualised staff and workers.

1.      Reducing sessional teaching hires means leaving the most precarious academic staff out to dry

Unsurprisingly, this plan leaves the most exploited and the most vulnerable academic staff out to dry: casual workers such as teaching staff on fixed-term or STP contracts. Indeed, your email openly projects the “need to avoid any new spend on sessional teaching and reduce, where possible, our existing spend”. In short, you say that casualised tutors will not be rehired for the coming academic year, meaning that not only will casualised academics not be hired on secure contracts, but they will lose even their current precarious income. This will also severely affect self-funded Postgraduate Research PGR students who rely on sessional teaching as an alternative funding source.

As you know, according to the latest available HESA data, around 70% of teaching at Warwick is undertaken by staff and workers on casual contracts, such as fixed-term and STP (data from 2016-17). This casualisation of our labour, mostly PGR students, early career and junior academics, has served Warwick exceptionally well. We have warned on many occasions that casual hiring practices make these members of staff extremely vulnerable, and the plan you laid out confirms our worst fears were warranted.

Reducing sessional teaching hires will leave these members of staff – who have contributed so much to Warwick’s teaching reputation over the past few years for little pay and recognition – with no income at all, at a time of dire employment prospects across the academic sector and beyond. In effect, this will negatively impact a whole generation of academics who have been exploited by the University to create wealth and excellence, and who are now the first to be sacrificed.

2.      Failing to properly train PGR students and setting them up to fail on the job market

Not hiring Associate Tutors in the next academic year means actively depriving existing PGR students of the opportunity to develop teaching skills necessary to be competitive on the job market, at a time when employment prospects are particularly bleak. In the past, Warwick has prided itself on producing particularly ‘employable’ graduates. We wonder how you will ensure the professional development of PGR students if they are not given an opportunity to teach in the coming year.

We require urgent clarification especially as to the plans to implement more secure contracts for PGR students in the coming academic year, moving from STP to Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) employment contracts. The introduction of these GTA contracts, after years of discussion, was one small step to deal with the casualisation issue, and we are dismayed at the possibility that the university could abandon these plans even before they were implemented.

3.      How to make up for 70% of casualisation? Piling onto the mountain of work.

The suggestion that the cancellation of study leave for a handful of academics will make up for the labour provided by a small army of casualised workers and staff is simply unrealistic. As mentioned above, we deliver approximately 70% of all teaching at Warwick and it is preposterous to suggest that established staff should or even can stem the work undertaken by casuals. As you are well aware, UCU remains in dispute with UCEA, including the University of Warwick, over the issues both of precarity and workload. Demanding that existing staff should stem even more work directly after UCU has taken a total of 22 strike days over the fact that the existing workload model is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of staff, is singularly tone-deaf. Such a plan will further drive down staff mental health and well-being, while making it impossible to meet teaching quality standards students expect from the university.It is questionable how Warwick plans to match existing teaching quality for online teaching, a condition by the government for universities aiming to collect full tuition fees, without sessional tutors.

4.      Disproportionate disadvantages for junior staff, women, and staff of colour

The cancellation of study leaves will affect junior and lower grade staff to a higher degree than senior academics. Inevitably, this will also result in a disproportionate disadvantage for female staff and staff of colour, as these groups are more likely to be on lower grade contracts. Yet, your letter fails to acknowledge the unequal consequences that your plan will have on the career progression of these groups. Your plan also fails to suggest meaningful strategies to mitigate these consequences. Indeed, in your letter, the only mitigation you suggest is that the Probation Review Group will take into account that less research will have been conducted by those academics affected by the cancellation of research leave – failing to make substantive commitments to amend probation expectations and guidelines.

 

As you rightly state in your email, we find ourselves in unprecedented times, but there are various ways of responding to this crisis, and the UEBG appears committed to find the way that causes maximum detriment to the Warwick workforce, academic and otherwise. Neither your response to the recent wave of Industrial Action, nor the lack of transparency and consideration during this current crisis will create enough goodwill in the academic community to stem the workload you propose be redistributed amongst existing staff.

Where the university’s management asks ‘all colleagues to be willing to be flexible and adaptable over the coming academic year’, the UEBG has failed to demonstrate these qualities themselves, and have instead single-mindedly focused on the increase of profit margins. The decision to cancel study and research leave and reduce sessional teaching hires translates directly into an increased burden on the academic community, with the lower grades and casualised members of said community most brutally affected.

Consequently, we demand that you address the 4 points that we have listed above in your next communication to staff, ensuring that casualised staff and workers are included in the distribution channels. This would be a starting point to reassure precariously employed staff that, despite the difficult times that we are all facing, Warwick is supportive of the most vulnerable colleagues.

Warwick holds a powerful position amongst higher education institutions in the country and must use this position to lobby the government to exit the road towards complete marketisation of higher education. The University should take this opportunity and become a strong voice promoting an understanding of higher education and research as public goods that should be funded not by study fees and market speculations, but by public money. Colleagues from across the sector have started on this path and have written this inspiring Manifesto which we recommend to your attention.

We look forward to receiving your response and, together with UCU Warwick, are keen to meet to discuss further measures to stabilise the university’s financial situation without betraying the most vulnerable members of our community.

Regards,

Warwick Anti-Casualisation

Statute 24 and casualisation: not in our name

Dear member of the Warwick University Assembly,

We are casualised seminar tutors, hourly paid lecturers, lab assistants, researchers. Without our work, the University would grind to a halt. And yet, we are not treated as employees but we are hired as casual hourly paid ‘workers’, without job security, career progression, staff benefits or collective bargaining entitlement. We are not even entitled to attend the University Assembly. However, our situation has been used as a bargaining chip in the process of driving forward the reform of Statute 24.

For over three years we have been campaigning to be re-classified as salaried employees hired on fractional contracts – as it is common practice in several institutions across the UK. But our demands have fallen on deaf ears. Hence, we unionised. And since 2016, UCU has been negotiating with the University to review the union recognition agreement to include workers, so that we could finally engage in collective bargaining with the University about our terms and conditions. But even this simple process has been in deadlock for months on end.

This is because the University has been stalling any meaningful discussion on addressing casualisation until after the reform of Statute 24 had been concluded. The reason was made clear by the Provost in a statement in December 2017: only once the employment processes had been streamlined, “the University will be able to review its contractual offering for academic staff with a view to reducing dependency on fixed term and casual contracts.” Or in other words, if it is easier to dismiss people on permanent contracts, they might be willing to offer permanent contracts more often. We joined UCU at the time in condemning this as a clear attempt to instrumentalise our situation and drive a wedge between casualised and permanent staff.

Whatever your opinion on the revised proposals for Statute 24 coming in front of you today, we just want to make one thing clear: the University has made no concrete offers or outlined any concrete steps about its professed intentions to address casualisation. Nothing has been put on the table; we still have no union recognition for workers, and are continuously excluded from any management discussions on reviewing our conditions. If the University were serious about addressing casualisation, they would not make it conditional on levelling down protections for permanent staff. We refuse to be used as ‘carrots’ in this process. If the University is determined to push through the reform of Statute 24, this will not be done in our name.

In solidarity,

Warwick Anti-Casualisation