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Unemployment crisis looms over thousands of academics as casual contracts are axed or postponed by UK’s top arts universities

Black and minority ethnic staff at institutions including Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art are particularly affected

Goldsmiths is due to let 472 casual contracts expire this summer, accounting for 40% of the overall work force © Nathan Dumlao

Thousands of lecturers at arts universities across London are facing unemployment as colleges plan to axe or postpone casual contracts over the summer, a move that campaigners say will disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic academics—particularly women.

The senior management team at Goldsmiths, University of London, is due to let 472 casual contracts expire this summer, accounting for 40% of the overall work force. Many of them are artists whose work has been shown in high-profile British and international art institutions.

Crucially, figures collected by the Justice for Workers campaign group suggest that around 75% of those being laid off are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. An overwhelming majority are women. Goldsmiths disputes this figure, however. According to a spokesman, 22% of associate lecturers and graduate trainee tutors across the college identify as from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, although he acknowledges “this data does not cover all fixed-term staff”. Goldsmiths is now engaged in a “wider analysis”, he adds.

At the University of the Arts London—the umbrella organisation covering six colleges including Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion (LCF)—an estimated 75% of staff are casually employed, with 2,500 lecturers on hourly-paid contracts.

Rupert Waldron, a lecturer at the LCF and branch officer, says the university has postponed the renewal of casual contracts from July to enrolment in October. “This is not as bad as at Goldsmiths—yet—but it’s an exacerbation of insecurity,” he says. “Our employers have over-exposed the institution to risk in terms of massive reliance on international students, which has always been a known contingency. Now it is likely to drop off, they are leaving casualised staff hanging on to see what scraps are there.”

An associate lecturer at UAL who wishes to remain anonymous says staff are now “bracing” for an announcement in the autumn that “potentially only very few of the 2,500 associate lecturers are going to get contracts”.

They add: “I’m very worried, having seen what’s happened at Goldsmith’s, that we are also poised to lose a whole generation of ethnically, but also otherwise diverse, young academics—the future of academia will just be even more pale, male and stale than it already is.”

A spokeswoman for UAL says the organisation recognises “the significant contribution” its associate lecturers and visiting practitioners make to the “quality of the education provision to our students and we are doing all we can to protect our core activities of teaching at this difficult time”. However, “if we have fewer student enrolments in the autumn, there is a possibility there may be less teaching work available. We therefore have no option but to delay the contracting of associate lecturers and visiting practitioners until September at the earliest.”

When it comes to the breakdown of the ethnicity of casually employed staff, the UAL spokeswoman says it “does not publish this data”. But, Waldron says, “anecdotally, it seems that UAL casualisation meets the national pattern, so more women and minority ethnic workers are in precarious positions”.

At the Royal College of Art, between 200 and 400 visiting lecturers stand to lose their jobs after the college announced a hiring freeze in April, which also applies to “the making of new commitments”, according to a staff memo. “We feel like they’re sleepwalking us to the edge of the cliff,” says Kevin Biderman, a tutor in critical and historical studies.

The RCA relies more heavily on causal staff than the majority of universities according to a 2016 report which revealed that 90% of staff are on casual contracts. Just 88 lecturers are on full-time contracts.

As with many other institutions, the RCA does not keep equal opportunities data on visiting lecturers as, Biderman points out, “they are on ‘terms of engagement’, basically ‘worker’ contracts which strips them of employment rights”. It is, he adds, a “pretty appalling abdication of their duty as an employer, especially as these lecturers seem to make up the majority of the teaching staff”.

According to the RCA, visiting lecturers are roughly 50% male/female and a smaller percentage identify as BAME. A spokesman adds: "The data is incomplete as some people choose not to disclose this information. However, according to the figures we do have, 10% have a known ethnicity identifying as BAME."

The issue of casual contracts has shone a spotlight on wider problems to do with racism and inequality, not only at the RCA but across the UK’s major arts universities. As Biderman says: “What we are starting to see, as with Covid-19, is that people who are already marginalised by society are affected most. This is a systemic issue, it’s built into these institutions, not just the RCA. Unless senior management wants to make a change, we can no longer have faith in those management systems—one of the things that we've been discussing is having a vote of no confidence in the vice chancellor's office.”

An RCA spokesman says: "The sector needs its champions while we battle through crisis and get to a new normal. What we are most concerned about is the conflation of race and gender with the issue of visiting lecturers at the RCA: it is plain wrong and a completely false assertion.

"The RCA is seeking to work with our community, other arts institutions, the Higher Education sector and Government to protect Britain's creative arts education and the RCA long-term—for colleagues and students. The college is committed to providing a high quality teaching experience for all and we will re-engage with our visiting lecturers as soon as we have some certainty on teaching requirements."

The Justice for Workers group at Goldsmith’s released their statistics after the artist and lecturer Evan Ifekoya withdrew their labour from the college’s art department last week amid what they described as “unreflective and combative racism”. They are the only black member of academic staff on a permanent contract in a department of 85; five black and minority ethnic members of staff employed on fixed-term contracts stand to lose their jobs following the decision to not renew casual contracts.

A senior lecturer at Goldsmiths who prefers to remain anonymous says: “Casualisation is part of institutional racism. Our black and minority ethnic colleagues are most often on these casual contracts because they’re tokenised, they are added on. In a way, casualisation has been an institutional prop for diversity.”

The Goldsmiths spokesman says that “any specific reports of racist behaviour” made to the college would always be “investigated as a priority”. He adds: “We fully recognise that simply stating we are committed to tackling racial injustice in all its forms is not enough and will be discussing with students and colleagues what more we need to do if we are to eliminate the scourge of racism from our community.”

The decision to not renew any casual contracts was taken “as a part of a range of Covid-19 financial stability measures”, he says. However, requests for associate lecturers and those on fixed-term contracts to be furloughed were denied, with applicants apparently being told they were not eligible for the scheme.

UPDATE: This article was amended on 24 June to include comment from the Royal College of Art