Behind the Lace Curtain

The term “lace curtain poverty” was coined to refer to situations where the objective reality of being impoverished is compounded by the additional complication whereby your circumstances are assumed by neighbours and the wider community to be at a much more comfortable (even prosperous) level than they actually are.  This predicament is often accentuated by the desire or acquired need to hide from others one’s true state of disadvantage.

As a trade union representing university staff in Ireland, we in IFUT have often had cause to identify with and empathise with the doubly disadvantaged person peering out at an uncomprehending world from the other side of the crochet-draped windows.

Our reality is that most people in Ireland probably believe that university employees enjoy not only a good life but a privileged and a cosseted one at that. But simultaneously and crucially, our reality is also the largely unrecognised fact that employment standards in universities have been in the vanguard of the ‘race to the bottom’ which has become the defining characteristic of employment conditions throughout the developed world in the past two decades or so. 

The above statements will, no doubt, come as a surprise to many.  But even the most cursory examination of the true facts in the sector will bear out their depressing veracity.

Some years ago a survey of employment standards in the UK found that precarious forms of employment were more common in the university sector than in almost all other employment categories including retail, construction and transport.

In the USA precariousness and poor pay has become such a feature of university employment that the term “taxi-driven academic” is often used to refer to those in Higher Education who can earn a living wage only by being employed in, at least, two colleges and who get from one lecturing appointment to another in time only by dashing from one institution to the other by taxi.

In Ireland the simple exercise of just looking at the (still relatively rare, especially in the light of the appallingly low ratio of academics to students) advertisements for staff vacancies in universities will yield ample evidence that a huge proportion of them are being offered only by way of insecure, non-permanent contracts.

Recently, when speaking at an event celebrating the International Labour Organisation (ILO), our President, Michael D. Higgins quoted the modern adage that “nowadays when an academic wishes to do research in to insecure employment, s/he does not need to arrange expensive field-work.  The simple act of opening her/his office door and looking down the corridor at colleagues will provide all the empirical evidence necessary to prove that life in the Academy is far from secure”. 

As if to gratuitously add insult to injury we can also state categorically that this steep rise in the incidence of exploitative forms of employment is not accidental, it is officially sanctioned and promoted.  Some of the evidence in support of this claim is set out below.

When, after years of campaigning by IFUT and like-minded allies, a clause was added to the national collective agreement for the public service which aimed to row back on the level of insecure employment in the sector the Department of Education absolutely and trenchantly insisted that its scope be limited so as to minimise its efficacy in the university sector.

Of a piece with such behaviour was a letter issued by a senior official in the same Dept. of Education to universities assuring them that nationally negotiated improvements to EU-generated legislation restricting exploitative, precarious forms of employment would not apply to universities and even if they did, it would only be in the most restrictive manner, thus almost totally neutralising their potential.

It should also be pointed out that precarious employment in our universities is not resorted to simply as a consequence of, or in response to, the undeniable funding crisis besetting the sector. EU legislation (at least that part of it beyond the reach of the Irish government) outlaws the payment of lower salaries to workers based on their form of contract (precarious versus ‘secure’).  So, it’s clear that the extraordinarily high incidence of insecure employment endured by academics (and most especially by Researchers) has been put there to serve another purpose.

By the way, all of the above behaviour by university management, driven mostly by the Dept. of Education, is played out against a background of a constant and repeated mantra extolling “our national commitment to encouraging and fostering research and advanced learning”.

Just as in classic examples of ‘lace curtainism’, it is the distain and the double standards which hurt almost as much as the objective disadvantage.  

As a consequence of all of the above we in IFUT calculate that we spend 70% of our union’s time and resources dealing with individual grievances regarding precarious employment, whereas if the above ameliorations had not been blocked by the state these could be dealt with more speedily, more effectively and more efficiently by being negotiated collectively instead of case by specific case.

Precarious employment is self-evidently not a victimless crime. But its list of casualties extends far beyond the ranks of those directly affected who suffer not alone the direct financial burdens but also the deep anxiety engendered when one literally does not know where the next pay cheque will come from.

Students who are taught by lecturers who are paid only for their contact hours, and not for preparation time or student follow-up and evaluation time, must inevitably have a lesser educational experience compared to those whose teachers are fairly paid for all of the essential elements of their pedagogical duties.

Society must be short-changed when talented researchers must limit the range of their studies to areas where short-term and contingent funding is their only source of income.

The prevalence of precarious forms of employment in our universities should be a cause of major concern not merely to those directly disadvantaged by it and their union representatives. It should be seen for what it is; short-term, mean-spirited thinking doing lasting damage way beyond the imagination (and, perhaps, in fairness, the intent) of those who promote it.