Richard Bradbury, an associate lecturer at Open University (OU), the largest university in the UK, is a member of the negotiating committee that helped contract lecturers win permanent contracts at OU. This triumph comprised the entire teaching staff of 4,800 at OU employed on teaching contracts receiving — for the first time in the university’s fifty-one-year history — fulltime equivalent permanent contracts of employment.
When did you and your negotiating committee at Open University (OU) first begin to organize around the issue of regularization of contract workers?
We first began to meet about five to six years ago to get the negotiations really moving and that led to a vote that showed over 93 per cent of our union members would be in favour of getting away from casualization. Our win represents several years of hard work and we’re still organizing to make sure those agreements are kept.
What would you suggest to those teachers who may be reading this and who are in negotiations with their university administrations and want to present some good arguments for why to create permanent positions at their institutions?
How we approached it was to show the upside for senior management — that a stable workforce would be in their best interests. We ran some numbers and found that the turnover rate among casualized teaching staff was sometimes up to 20 per cent. We questioned the longer-term impact of this and argued that it wasn’t good for an educational institution’s stability and reputation, and it wasn’t good for student learning
When teaching staff are regularized, they have an investment in the success of the institution and that success shows in the quality of the teaching. The institution benefits, as do the teachers and the students. Students at OU remark that they appreciate knowing their teachers and interacting with them. This is part of the experience of higher learning and so having professional, well trained, and expert staff, is a good experience all-round.
What were the chief benefits to teachers that you fought for and won in your contracts?
After many months of our University & College Union intensely negotiating with the university, the contract was finally implemented in 2022. That meant that 4,800 associate lecturers previously working on a casual basis began to receive up to 15 per cent higher wages, extra annual leave, and staff development allowances. Basically, the contract has allowed them enhanced job security as those enjoyed by their permanently employed colleagues.
I had one teacher say that being paid regularly each month meant that she no longer had to tell her kids, “This is a baked-beans month.” This kind of stability is far reaching and can’t be underestimated.
The stability of our workforce also means that teachers don’t have to be constantly reapplying for their jobs, as was the case previously when every 10 years they were treated as new hires having to prove themselves. Also, recently we’ve been working on an audit of people’s skills so that the university knows what individuals who teach here are qualified to teach as far as subjects and courses. This will also add to the overall stability of our workforce as the university will be drawing on a stable pool of educators for new courses.
What are some ways that casualized staff can build networks of allies and supporters as they mobilize for fairer conditions and higher wages?
Don’t think that management is a monolith. Begin to identify potential allies who are higher up and may understand the benefits of helping contract lecturers win permanent contracts. Tactically identify people who are more sympathetic to the cause and keep these people in proximity.
When our negotiating team was just getting started, I toured around to speak with those at other higher learning institutions and unions to garner support. With me, was a senior manager from OU who understood what we were trying to do and who believed it was a good idea. When we spoke to audiences, I explained the situation from my perspective while he gave his reasons from a university standpoint of why administration should get behind it.