Liam McLoughlin & The ECN Committee 15 April 2020

With the shutdown of face-to-face teaching in universities, the current focus of academic news has been on the impact for students, university finances, the pressure to convert learning materials to online teaching, and the postponing of the Research Excellence Framework. However, an issue which is less frequently discussed is the potential economic impact of the Covid-19 shutdown on hourly paid lecturers and PhD students who undertake paid teaching.

ECRs play a vital role in teaching across academic departments – often providing a significant amount of students’ face-to-face contact. But with university campuses shutting down, an important source of their income is at risk. Though universities have diverse concerns to address, at this crucial juncture, ECN members have come to us with concerns about pay and how they are feeling on very unsteady ground indeed.

Consequently, the Early Career Network undertook our own study to understand the short-term impact of current events on hourly-paid staff. We asked the Heads of 95 Politics Departments at universities in the UK about their university’s pay policies for the hourly-paid. What are their plans for continuing teaching (if at all), and will they continue to pay hourly paid staff to the full planned amount? 24 responded, and here’s what they said:

  • 23 out of 24 responses said they are moving teaching online. The exception was one university nearing the end of their academic year but would continue to pay staff as planned.

 

  • Of these, 22 said that hourly-paid staff will continue to be paid their normal amount for online activities rather than face-to-face. One department did not currently employ any hourly-paid staff.

 

  • Across the departments who provided staff figures, they had an average of 10.5 hourly paid staff (with a range of 3 to 20).

 

For ECRs on hourly-paid contracts, these results should come as welcome and reassuring. In some instances, some departments made further commitments. One university even stated a commitment to pay their hourly-paid members of staff additional hours for redesigning resources to teach online. Others committed to continue to pay hourly-paid staff where operational issues prevented online teaching.

As ECRs we are often predisposed to criticise universities for the precarious post-doctoral working environment. But where they are acting in the best interests of ECRs that is something we should certainly congratulate. However, we recognise not all Politics departments will have equal power and resources, and in many cases, decisions will be taken at a higher level. Even in these circumstances, we think there are things all departments can do to support ECRs during the pandemic:

 

  • In these fast-moving times, university departments need to keep their current hourly paid staff informed. Make sure they are kept aware of current developments that might impact them (however big or small), including about longer-term developments, as many ECRs will want to know the options available to them in the next academic year.
     
  • While it’s useful to keep ECRs informed, it’s equally important to listen to them too. With cancelled meetings it may be all too easy to cut TAs and HPLs from those important spaces where they can share their concerns and experiences – make sure to keep the communication channels open, and to keep them two-way.

 

  • Give special consideration to international PhDs and ECRs on visas. Disruptions to research and restrictions on movement may force some to seek visa extensions – which can be a difficult experience at the best of times. Losses of income make this even more problematic, while being far from their families may heighten the emotional impacts of the pandemic.

 

  • ECRs are especially vulnerable to social isolation, and we implore departments to take action to keep both PhD students and hourly-paid staff socially connected. Office video chats, Slack groups and social media might be valuable ways of keeping your community alive.

 

 

So, our message is simple. To department heads, we recognise you’re under pressure in this unprecedented situation, but please don’t forget us! To ECRs, it should reassure you to know that – based on the response we had here - heads of department are certainly concerned and acting on your behalf.

There is also one big caveat to this report. The responses here represent the here-and-now of the situation, and it’s difficult to predict what will come next. The ECN is determined to keep our eye on the situation and continue to keep all our members up to date with any further developments. If you have any thoughts or comments, or simply want to share your experience, please email us at ecn@psa.ac.uk.

The ECN would like to thank the 24 department heads who took the time to respond to our survey (especially considering the circumstances) and especially those who shared reassuring messages of support to all hourly-paid staff in this time.