Trade unions are demanding an end to “precarious” work practices that are disproportionately affecting women’s working conditions in third level and higher education roles. They have also appealed for the end of “exploitation of postgraduate labour.”

To mark International Women’s Day, SIPTU representatives from third level institutions gathered in Liberty Hall to discuss the “stark inequalities” experienced by women as cleaners, catering staff and temporary administrative staff and lecturers. Ethel Buckley, SIPTU Deputy Secretary General, said that many third-level employees are still excluded from making progress in their careers with very little chance of securing a stable job and “robbing” them an opportunity of a stable life.

She added that “at the core of this fight against precarious work are competing, indeed opposing, ideologies concerning what it is to be a worker in the third level sector. Is it to be merely a generator of someone else’s profits or a self-confident actor who can assist in creating an environment which fosters true educational development? Today, workers from across the sector discussed the issues affecting them and decided to take action by stepping up their union organising by utilising traditional methods complemented by social media and other tactics.”

Maggie Ronayne, SIPTU Education Sector Chair, said that the “focus on gender equality in higher and further education has largely been on the promotion of more women to senior academic roles.” She also said that the “precarious employment” of women in higher education is an “enormous but largely overlooked problem in the sector” and that “tackling precarious work is crucial to achieving gender equality and pay equity.” She describes the practice of outsourcing as “rampant and must be addressed” and affects cleaners the most.

Other attendees have been affected directly by these work practices and spoke of their experiences. Dr. Deirdre McHugh from NUI Galway said she was “afraid to speak up because I might lose what little I had. Academics have put an immense amount of work into getting where they are. It’s very difficult to walk away from that.” Dr. Jennie Carlsten from Queen’s University spoke of the difficulties trying to balance precarious work hours and caring for children. She had to correct papers while in hospital after giving birth to her daughter. “The issue of being a carer disproportionately affects us as women. When my father had a stroke and died my husband had to cover my classes because there was no provision for sick leave or bereavement for casual workers.”

Dr. Aline Courtois of University of Bath said that these harmful and exploitative practices are common across third level institutions.“There are many different forms of low paid or unpaid labour that have proliferated. Hourly paid work should not exist in academia, it completely ignores the reserves that go into teaching, it’s insulting to academic work in general.”

Unions are demanding that all directly employed staff categories and grades be made permanent, staff have dependable employment with access to progression, sick pay and a pension. They are also calling for an assured grading structure for all teaching staff that unions agree with. Furthermore, family-friendly and leave policies should be reinstated and that researchers be provided with secure employment and progression and that outsourcing to be ended.

Adrian Kane, SIPTU Community Division Organiser, said that to tackle gender inequality in third level institution and create fairer working environment for all, the funding crisis for third level institutions need to be urgently addressed first. He said that “years of under-investment and reduced staffing has taken its toll and the entire sector is rife with insecure employment . . . It’s made it virtually impossible for workers to aspire to a stable career.”

SIPTU Education Sector Organiser Karl Byrne said that workers involved in third level sector- a “key social good” and mostly funded by the public, “should have the importance of their role respected and be provided with the same standard of employment contracts that are available to others in the public service.

The government has recently passed the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act that limits the use of zero-hour contracts. Buckley has commended the move, but is wary of employers not adhering to the law as “legislation on paper is one thing but how the conversation is interpreted by adjudicators and the Labour Court is another thing.”

According to research by the Higher Education Authority, six out of 10 of academic staff who work in temporary or part-time roles are women, and that 45% of lecturers are working on a non-permanent basis. 41% of full-time, permanent academic positions are held by women.

In 2018, it was revealed that in UCD only 30 per cent of Heads of School are women, while only 24% of full professors were women. There has never been a female president in the university’s history.