In a major victory, the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK secured permanent contracts for 4,800 previously casualized associate lecturers of the Open University (OU). UCU’s extensive negotiations with the university authorities concluded successfully and from August 1, 2022, the staff will benefit from enhanced job security, a pay upgrade between 10-15%, additional annual leave and staff development allowances. This is being hailed as the biggest decasualization win in the history of higher education in the UK. The UCU has also called on other universities to end casual contracts and offer permanent contracts and full rights to the academic staff.
The UCU and other unions in the education sector have been organizing national and institutional level struggles to protest cuts in wages and pensions and against heavy workload. They are demanding higher wages, more rights, job security, and an end to gender, race and disability pay gaps. According to reports, more than 70,000 staff in the sector are employed on casual contracts. The UCU claimed that the new agreement with the Open University has reduced the number of academics on teaching-only fixed-term contracts in the UK by 15%.
According to a UCU survey covering over 2,700 workers in more than 200 colleges across England, based on which the UCU recently published a report titled ‘On the breadline: The Cost of Living for England’s College Workers’, the majority of staff (80% of the respondents) are more financially insecure now than they were a year ago and seven in 10 are considering leaving the sector unless pay is increased.
“More than four in 10 (42%) said their income does not cover the cost of living. Of these, almost two thirds (64%) said they heat their home less frequently, two in five (40%) said they restrict hot water and a quarter (25%) said they are skipping meals,” the report says.
Working class sections across the UK are reeling under a severe cost of living crisis marked by skyrocketing fuel and food prices. Major working class protests and strikes are underway in the UK led by unions, including the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), protesting austerity, job cuts and demanding solutions to tackle the ongoing cost of living crisis. Strike ballots are underway in the UCU too, and a major strike action may be upcoming in November in which around 80,000 members at 149 universities will participate.
UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said, “the new contract is life changing for the 4,800 associate lecturers who have been moved onto secure contracts that mean they no longer have to constantly re-apply for their jobs. UCU is immensely proud of reaching this agreement with The Open University after many years of hard work, and while we recognize there is still more to do, we are celebrating this huge step forward in ending casualization at the OU.”
“’UCU will continue working on behalf of our members at OU to ensure all staff have fair terms and conditions and fair pay. We value the positive way in which these negotiations have been handled and the contracts implemented. The OU’s decasualization deal is the largest ever within the sector. UCU will continue working on behalf of our members in order to try and reach similar agreements with other universities,” Grady added.
On August 3, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn congratulated the UCU in a tweet saying, “this is an excellent victory for the UCU members at the Open University — and will hopefully bring about the end of casualization in the higher education sector. Every worker deserves fair pay, equal treatment and a secure contract.”