Staff Precarity at AUC: “We Feel Like Hustlers!”

By Levin Stamm

Collage by Emma Kappeyne van de Coppello

No permanent employment, instead just another temporary contract for the next semester. What follows are feelings of disappointment, insecurity and anxiety. Dr. Patricia Schor knows this rollercoaster of emotions only too well. She is, as of 2019 statistics, one of approximately 70 precariously-employed lecturers at Amsterdam University College. Indirectly hired through the outsourcing company UvA Jobservices, these lecturers are mostly given a contract for either one or four months. Over and over again.

Schor, professor of various Sociology courses such as Race, Class, Intersectionality, is in her fourth year of teaching under precarious conditions at AUC. Precarious work is generally characterised by insecure, uncertain, and unpredictable working conditions. She criticises the lack of awareness on the issue of staff precarity amongst the AUC student body: “Many students don’t even know that their teachers work under precarious working conditions,” she says, “although it being an important aspect of much more deeply rooted problems, such as institutional racism alongside the neoliberalization of the university.”

Earlier this year, Schor and her colleague Dr. Hilla Dayan composed a “Statement on Diversity and Staff Precarity at Amsterdam University College” in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests. The statement points out that “minorities are overrepresented among those on exploitative temporary contracts in the Netherlands.” The authors also denounce AUC’s alleged passivity in improving the working conditions of its precarious workers – despite being heavily dependent on them. So far, over 50 staff members have signed the statement in solidarity.

They talk about intentions and feelings, but seem to forget that, for the people affected, there is a harsh economic reality to it.

Dr. Patricia Schor

The AUC management reacts as follows to the statement written by Schor and Dayan: “[The statement] was gratefully received (…), and following this we met with relevant colleagues to discuss the points it raises.” The management also refers to the Framework and Action Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (FAPDEI), wanting “to ensure that they understand our commitment to diverse staffing and seek to pilot models for the deployment of faculty that create viable career pathways for academic colleagues.” However, even the FAPDEI is by no means undisputed in AUC’s core faculty.

Schor further points towards AUC management’s lacking engagement: “Nothing fundamental is being done to solve the issue. The management is simply not trying.” She says, “their reactions are always very wordy. They talk about intentions and feelings, but seem to forget that, for the people affected, there is a harsh economic reality to it.”

Asked if the current legal framework around temporary staff members requires adjustments, the management answers: “Our aim at AUC is to ensure that the conditions for all colleagues, including both academic and administrative staff, are in keeping with best practice and fair, and we aspire to be an inclusive and supportive workplace.”

Affected staff members doubt this to be the case, especially when it comes to freedom of expression: “Precarious staff members are often hyper aware of their vulnerability, which makes them extremely reluctant to express controversial opinions,” says Schor. Dr. Sidra Shahid, currently in her third year of teaching ethics among other courses at AUC, confirms: “precarious work comes with paranoia – unnecessary considerations of what one must do or say.” Dr. Donya Ahmadi, who taught Academic Writing Skills during the fall semester, adds: “You are allowed to express your opinion, but it might cost you your job.”

The prevalence of temporary contracts at AUC compromises  the diversity of viewpoints existing at AUC, as precariously employed staff worry about the implications their opinions may have on job security. With a disproportionately large amount of minorities finding themselves in precarious working conditions, their opinions and perspectives are more likely to remain unheard. AUC management is limited to having to pick lecturers from the more man-dominated and ethnically more homogenous pools of available lecturers from the VU and UvA, and cannot hire its own lecturers. Therefore, staff precarity is reinforced at AUC in the long-term.

Instead of focusing on teaching, precarious lecturers need to constantly look out for new job opportunities. We feel like hustlers!

Dr. Donya Ahmadi

Thus, the question arises: Does staff precarity stifle critical discussion at AUC? Ahmadi says: “We’re pushed into sticking to the status quo instead of challenging it. Where is the diversity and excellence in this?” Shahid says, “Freedom of expression must always be looked at contextually. It’s an important value for any institution, but we all occupy different positions. Some are more powerful than others, so concretely we all aren’t free in the same way. This is how institutions are also places of inequality.”

Ahmadi further fears that temporary contracts not only have devastating impacts on employees’ mental health and freedom of expression, but also on the quality of education that AUC offers. She says, “The frequent fluctuation of temporary staff members undermines the teaching quality significantly. It takes time to get used to a course.” Even worse: “Precarity means that you are constantly reminded of your disposability. Instead of focusing on teaching, precarious lecturers need to constantly look out for new job opportunities. We feel like hustlers!”

A look into the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities shows: Dutch universities are allowed to hire temporary staff for a maximum period of three years distributed over three contracts. In case of exceedance, the contract is automatically converted into a permanent one.

Ahmadi, however, highlights a “loophole” in the labour agreement. Precarious staff members who have worked for the maximum period of time on a temporary contract will be given a six month leave, after which the whole procedure can be repeated. “It allows them to never actually offer us permanent contracts,” she says. Using this clause, AUC has engaged some lecturers over a time span of eight years under precarious conditions. This despite the management stating that “when a vacancy in the core faculty arises, then colleagues who have worked for us on [UvA] Jobservice contracts are encouraged to apply.“

Despite being incentivized to apply, the fact remains that temporary lecturers are only hired by AUC if the existing vacancy cannot be filled with academic staff that are already employed by the Universiteit van Amsterdam or the Vrije Universiteit. External lecturers thus live in the constant fear of being replaced, in case one of these lecturers would become available again.

Precarious contracts make it impossible for you to plan your life.

DR. Sidra Shahid

Shahid says: “I understand that certain rules and protocols must be respected. However, rules should never supersede what is ethical, as it is often the case under conditions of precarious labor.” She highlights the deeply seated implications staff precarity may have on a personal level. “It’s not just about contracts and careers. When your contract is not renewed for a term, how will you pay your rent and your bills? How will you support your family? Precarious contracts make it impossible for you to plan your life.” 

The AUC management comments as follows: “Precarity for academic colleagues is a real issue, both in the Netherlands and more broadly. While there are some for whom short term contracts are their preferred format, there are also many colleagues who seek full time careers in academia.” As the management points out, providing a large number of permanent contracts is difficult at a university college, in which the faculty only has the opportunity to teach, and not to conduct research. A satisfying solution for staff under precarious conditions is yet to be found.

Lecturers are the first to face the damage caused by precarious work; but AUC, and its quality of education, is soon to follow: Dr. Patricia Schor, who has been involved in building up several courses and revising the curriculum over the years, will be leaving the university at the end of the semester – taking plenty of competence and experience with her. “Of course it hurts to leave my competent and dedicated colleagues at AUC,” she says, “but when you have the opportunity to get a three-year contract elsewhere, the choice is quite an easy one.”

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