‘I’ve had to work in call centres’: Bristol Uni staff speak out about temporary contracts

‘I am looking for all kinds of work at the moment. There’s not much out there.’

334 staff at the University of Bristol have signed an Open Letter to VC Hugh Brady and the University Management Team demanding a “jobs first” response to the pandemic, saying they “should not leave any employee without a job for the duration of the Coronavirus pandemic”.

The Bristol UCU lists nine demands that were near-unanimously approved by the membership, including “[extending] the employment of all employees on fixed-term contracts until there is a reasonable opportunity for them to find a replacement job”, and presenting “a detailed account” of why a hiring freeze is necessary.

Bristol University estimates that it will cost £27 million to extend fixed-term contracts to the end of the year, which it described as “not affordable”.

Over the past few weeks, staff on fixed-term contracts have shared with The Bristol Tab the extreme difficulties they and their families are facing, with many taking insecure temporary work to make up the shortfall.

Here are the stories of two academics at Bristol University of the many facing immense hardship.

‘I may need to think about a career change and all the upheaval and uncertainty that comes with that.’

Dr Sam Appleton, a Senior Teaching Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies, has been on three fixed-term contracts since he joined the university in August 2017.

He has taught students in a variety of modules, describing teaching at Bristol as a “fantastic experience” and spoke highly of his colleagues, saying they are the “most inspiring and original teachers I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”

However, his contract will shortly come to and end, and knows that he will struggle to make ends meet as he waits for fixed-term roles to be advertised once again.

Between previous contracts, he worked in a minimum wage role in a call-centre, which he said “had some pretty dire financial consequences, which I’ve only been able to dig myself out of fairly recently.” He has also previously worked as a waiter, bar-tender, builder, and debt-collector, but with the pandemic still raging, he is not optimistic about his job prospects and is currently looking for anything from school teaching to administrative roles.

Dr Sam Appleton (photo courtesy of Dr Appleton)

“The most problematic aspect of short-term contracts in general is the impact they have on relationships and family life. Would you like to save to support starting a family? Or pay off some of that student debt? Get your credit cards and overdrafts (taken out to stave off disaster during periods of unemployment between contracts) under control? What about a deposit on a flat?

“None of this is very easy when you don’t know where you’ll be in ten months time or if you do have a job, how much you will be earning.

“The trade-offs that are often required in the personal lives of aspiring academics are also enormously emotionally costly and painful, and can have lasting impacts on mental health. I’ve moved around a lot, from Aberdeen to Brighton, and on again to Bristol via work in London. Where next? I’d love to stay, but it’s hard to tell if that will be possible at the moment.”

‘In normal times, I would be relatively confident of finding work somewhere, even if it meant leaving Bristol and relocating but in current circumstances that is looking far less likely.’

A colleague of Dr Appleton, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has recently bought a flat in Bristol after 10 years at the university as a student and a teacher, but is now facing the prospect of having to completely restart: “There is a good chance I will now need to sell – either to move away for work or because the mortgage will become unaffordable if I am unemployed next year.”

Dr Smith* first came to Bristol in 2010 as a Masters student, completing 2 Masters degrees and a PhD. They then started as a Senior Teaching Associate in August 2018, and continued on unstable fixed-term contracts earning 70 per cent of what a full time staff member would earn with a similar workload.

Bristol VC Hugh Brady (centre-right) speaking to staff on strike in November 2019

“The reality is that many early career academics on these types of contract are working full hours for fractional pay, two months without pay over summer, and no long-term security. The current crisis, and plans to lay-off large numbers of these staff without any support, highlights this longstanding problem.”

Dr Smith was put on a 12 month, full time contract for the first time this year: “the current indications are that the university response to COVID-19 is to let contracts run out and not in any way support these fixed-term staff who have been so central to teaching delivery over recent years.”

Dr Smith has been told that their contract is unlikely to be renewed in September, and staff say that they have been told that the government’s furlough scheme is inapplicable to them. As a result, “the contracts of many colleagues end in June (mine in September) with chances of finding employment in the sector next year looking very slim.”

In normal times, Dr Smith told me that they would be confident of finding work elsewhere, however the ongoing pandemic will make that extremely difficult. They were very clear that the senior colleagues in their department have been incredibly supportive, and blames the shift to a casualised employment model for the difficulties academics are facing.

“In light of the casualised employment models that universities have been operating and benefitting from, they have a responsibility to protect existing staff during this crisis. Some institutions around the country have committed to doing this, but there are currently no positive signs of this happening at UoB.”

*Name changed to protect the identity of the staff member

The Bristol UCU said: “Any reduction in frontline teaching and research staff is a reduction in teaching and research capacity, a University less equipped to do the job it’s supposed to be doing.

“Do students want a University whose primary mission is to educate — whether online or in our new tutorial-based teaching provision –, or a University that seeks to appease wealthy creditors and financiers first and foremost?”

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We have been working closely with UCU and all our campus trade union representatives as we navigate our way through these exceptional times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are committed to protecting as many jobs as we can.

“Fixed term contracts are a feature of the Higher Education sector – often because of funding arrangements. We are continuing with our commitment to reduce casualisation of contracts where we are able, because we recognise the importance of these roles to our University and value the staff who fulfil them.

“We know that this is a stressful situation for staff on fixed term contracts, and we support staff wherever we can at the end of their fixed term contract. However, we are not able to fund extensions where there is either no continuing work or funding available. The estimated costs of extending all fixed term contracts to the end of the calendar year is £27 million; this is not affordable in the current environment.

“However, we are still recruiting staff and the majority of that recruitment is advertised internally first in order to increase the opportunities for our existing employees. We have also established opportunities for staff to obtain follow-on employment: for example through the internal COVID-19 research programme.”

You can read the letter from Bristol staff to the University here

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