A recent article in the Guardian highlights the stories of the 53% of academics in the UK who exist on short-term, hourly-paid or part-time contracts. While sexual harassment and forms of sexual misconduct were not discussed in the Guardian’s coverage, there need to be discussions of its connection to precarious labour. Precarity is a feminist issue for many reasons, one of which is that it supports cultures that permit forms of discrimination, including gender, racial and sexuality based violence. Precarious contracts can contribute to a culture that enables or condones sexual harassment or misconduct between staff and students, as well as towards junior or precarious staff.
One link between precarity and sexual misconduct has to do with the nature of the relationships between staff and students. When a student meets their lecturer on the first day, they are unlikely to think of what contract that lecturer is on. Instead, they will see staff as representatives of the institution that is training and educating them. But if that lecturer does not perceive themselves to be a part of the institution because they are on a temporary, part-time contract and feels overworked and underpaid, how will that affect their relationship with students? Will they recognise themselves as in a particular position of power, even when they might be precarious as an employee? Will they respect university policy and rules? Will they want to engage in supporting a student through a complaint process that may, for example, put their mentor and future referee on the receiving end of a complaint?
Equally worrying is the ability for universities to effectively implement safeguarding policies. The recent Universities UK report has identified directions for universities to take, for example through training staff on identifying what is sexual harassment, disclosure training, and training on processes for complaints and procedures. Yet precarity begs the question: what kind of training can be provided for staff if the turnover is high and some staff are working only a few hours a week? A precarious academic may be employed at five or six different institutions in one year alone. Is it realistic and appropriate that they go through six separate training sessions? Will the institution pay for their time to undergo this training? Will that member of staff be able to distinguish and remember all the various policies at each institution in an effective manner when it matters most? Needless to say, it becomes even more worrying when an institution attempts to put a sticking plaster on this issue through tokenistic training such as short videos followed by an online quiz. At best, it is unsafe and potentially dangerous to then claim staff thus trained are competent in handling disclosure.
At The 1752 Group, we believe that the precarity of academic employment adds to the strong argument for a national independent network in the UK that handles all complaints related to gender inequality and sexual misconduct, similarly to the Title IX offices in the US. This network would have an office at each institution with permanent staff. Such an independent office would prioritise safeguarding students, unlike a university that can only inefficiently juggle the claims of staff, students, reputation, research, teaching, and safeguarding, among others. Our vision of how this could work in the UK will be detailed in future blog posts. However, the discussion of precarity that the Guardian has raised draws attention to the question of how universities address sexual misconduct by academic staff when so many members of their workforce are precariously employed.