Academia – where working to contract is apparently a problem

The standard employment relationship is very straightforward: an employee is expected to fulfil their contractual duties, no more no less. However, to do so in the academic sphere is, apparently, a problem. This became very evident in the recent union action in support of the demand for fairer pay.

It was calculated in the summer of 2016 that academic pay should be increased by 14.9% to get back to the level that it should be had it kept up with inflation since 2009. The employer offered 1%. In response, all manner of initiatives flowed from union members within the confines of a general “work to contract”, including marking boycotts, non-attendance at open and visit days and external examiners refusing to validate courses.

As intended, this caused much disruption and anxiety to university managers who simply could not deliver on expected targets, which require working over contract and a plethora of extra-curricula activities as norms to ensure the smooth running of university departments these days.

It was telling, however, when the pay award of 1.1 % for 2016 was imposed by the employer that the union instructed members that restrictions had been lifted and that normal working could be resumed, meaning that employees had the union’s blessing/instruction to resume working many hours over and above their contracts in the overall interests of, and benefit to, the employer.

Am I missing something? Should a union really be advocating that members work over and above that which is contracted, and work that is unpaid at that? If universities need employees to work over their contracts as a norm might it not indicate that more employees might be needed? Might this even be linked to wider issues such as precarious casualised contracts and the employment uncertainty that this carries, prevailing gender disparities and unprecedented levels of workplace stress and depression within the university sector?

There is clearly much lurking under this particular stone to be further explored.