56% of Durham staff on precarious contracts as pandemic increases job insecurity

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A Freedom of Information (FOI) has revealed that more than half of Durham University staff are employed on non-permanent contracts.

The FOI, submitted by Palatinate, shows that 56% of all staff have fixed-term or atypical contracts. 

Of Durham’s 7,657 employees, 3,351 have atypical contracts while 962 are employed for a fixed-term only. Only 3,344 of the University’s staff are employed on a permanent basis. 

Since 2015, the number of permanent contracts has decreased by 9% while the number of fixed-term contracts has increased by 28%. 

In February, the University issued a joint-statement pledging to end its use of casual contracts. The University also previously claimed, in 2018, that it would stop employing staff on nine-month contracts, following a protracted campaign by ‘Durham Casuals’, a group set up to combat the casualisation of staff in the University.

With over half of staff still on precarious contracts despite these pledges by the University, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought increased job insecurity and emotional instability for many of the University’s staff. 

Commenting to Palatinate, an anonymous member of staff said: “The Vice Chancellor’s salary and benefits came to £374,000 last year – cutting the livelihoods of low paid, precarious staff whilst continuing to pay the Vice Chancellor a salary putting him in the top 1% of earners in the country is not a good look.”

An end to my employment at Durham would be personally devastating

Durham Casuals survey respondent

A survey put together by Durham Casuals has revealed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on those with precarious contracts.

The results of the survey highlight the strength of feeling from staff. One commented: “’An end to my employment at Durham would be personally devastating, as I’ve given a lot to the university.

“To be made redundant in the midst of a crisis would underscore how little my physical and mental well-being matters to the University.”

Many comments suggested that redundancy now would make future employment more difficult to obtain. “’Non-renewal of my current contract will likely mean leaving academia permanently. Losing academic affiliation would negatively impact my research and opportunities for future funding. 

“I would lose library access and the institutional email through which I’ve conducted business for the last three years. Hiring freezes throughout the sector make it unlikely that I’ll be able to find another post.”

The survey also highlighted the threat of serious loss of household income with consequences such as having to move house or move back in with family members: “I would take a massive financial hit. I have two dependents that attend nursery while I work. Their “life” as they know it (i.e. friends they’ve made at nursery and their routine) would be turned upside down if they could no longer attend (which they couldn’t if I was no longer employed).”

If my employment were to end we would be faced with the inability to meet our financial obligations

Durham Casuals survey respondent

Another commented that “I am currently supporting my husband, who is out of work due to the Covid-19 crisis making his self-employment as a function musician impossible, as well as two young children. 

“If my employment were to end we would be faced with the inability to meet our financial obligations.”

Comments also highlighted a lack of clear information and inconsistencies in the information provided to staff about next year. 

Postgraduate researchers shared some similar concerns to casual staff about potential lack of opportunities for teaching next year, in relation to future employment prospects. One PhD candidate commented:  “Through teaching, I am able to feel useful and part of a wider [academic] community beyond the scope of solely my research. It plays an important role for mental health and wellbeing, as some social life revolves around teaching duties, from meeting with other postgrads for training/discussions, to being in closer contact with staff.

A spokesperson for the Durham branch of the University and College Union (UCU) said in a statement to Palatinate: “Following our joint statement in February, the union continues to work with Durham University to fulfil our shared desire that all staff should be treated fairly. Many of our members are employed in a precarious way, which has been heightened by the current health pandemic.

“The commitment to offer employment contracts wherever possible, was one that we welcomed. We continue to meet with the University and press for mechanisms to support casually employed staff during this time, while also pushing for clarity and equity in their employment for the coming academic year.

The University has a responsibility to be a good employer

Kate McIntosh, DSU President

When asked about the way in which the University employed staff, Kate McIntosh, president of the SU, said: “The University has a responsibility to be a good employer and offer fair, secure contracts to staff, so these numbers are concerning. 

“The University employs a huge number of people in the area, so the standards they set a precedent for the local job market too. 

“As well as being the decent thing to do, security for staff is also important to the experience students have, in their departments, colleges and in University services. 

“Postgrads who teach are particularly likely to have to deal with precarious work and David your Post-Grad Academic officer has been doing some important work in this area to improve conditions.”

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