Employment Insecurity in Tertiary Education: When Universities Start to Offer Precarious Jobs

In recent months, a number of teaching employees have been dismissed by various universities in Hong Kong. It is seen as a warning signal that universities are behaving like unscrupulous employers, just as other sectors. Not only do these dismissals affect employees' job security, they also damage the image of higher education institutions in Hong Kong. In this edition of the HKCTU Solidarity Post, we would like to take a closer look into the issue.


A Survival Rate of 25%

Teaching employees pointed out that the University Grants Committee (hereafter: UGC), an advisory committee which is in charge of funding, had been changing its funding policies over the past years. They have become more research-oriented, last shorter term and contain a higher percentage of specific use.


Such research-oriented policies lead to the emergence of the 3+3 contract system, whereas teaching staff would be first offered two short-term contracts, each of them in three year, before they will be offered a tenured post, which is based upon the perquisite of a brilliant research record. According to an article from Ip Lam-chong, an academic from Lingnan University, he quoted that in major universities such as the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, fewer than 25% of the academic staff could secure themselves the tenured posts.


Recent Dismissals / Non-Renewals in the Tertiary Education Sector

Hong Kong Baptist University

Dr Benson Wong, assistant professor of the Department of Government and International Studies, who was also chairman of the staff trade union, could not get his contract renewed.


Dr Roger Wong, research assistant professor of Department of Biology and elected trustee of the university, could not get his contract renewed.


Three full-time academic employees of Department of Religion and Philosophy could not get their contracts renewed and were offered part-time contracts instead.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Contracts of six teaching employees of Department of Applied Mathematics were not renewed.


Contracts of nine lecturers of Department of Applied Social Sciences were not renewed.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Department of Social Sciences, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies would reduce its contracted teaching employees in the coming years.


Teaching Staff as Scapegoats

As the research-based academics have a survival rate of only 25%, they are far too busy in producing papers, instead of teaching. Thus, the universities tend to employ lecturers or instructors to teach, offering them only short-term or even part-time contracts, treating them as disposable employees in the universities.


One might ask: there is always a demand for tertiary education and the new 4-year tertiary education scheme indeed create more students. Why are lectures being offered short-term contracts and often dismissed, instead of being valued and kept contented? The major reason is, UGC has been promoting various short-term funding projects and cutting down on comprehensive projects; its allocation mechanism based on competition creates funding insecurity for universities, leading them to offer precarious, fragmented teaching posts. For major faculties with enormous fund-raising capacity, the so-called funding insecurity is just an excuse for its management to launch labour flexibilization. 

Collusion between UGC and Tertiary Education Institutions

Hong Kong Polytechnic University has been dismissing employees mercilessly. It informs the head of the Department of Applied Social Sciences that the department would reach a deficit of HKD 24 million in 2020, while dismissing 9 lecturers could help to save HKD 1 million. At the same time, the department recruited 6 assistant professors and two associate professors. In June 2017, the university showed a surplus of HKD 390 million.


UGC's research-before-teaching policy and its evaluation criteria is the major cause of the current situation. Also, non-transparent funding flow of the universities, those sudden announcements of deficit in individual departments, make the universities the executioners in sacking their own staff.

How to Fight against the Current?

Facing such a gigantic organization and the enormous difficulties mentioned above, how can the academic staff carry on their struggle? One must admit that the current staffing and pay-scale have divided the staff members into “old”, “new”, “teaching”, “researching”, “tenured”, “contracted” and many other different categories. To resolve the conflicts and address the differences between different categories of employees, to find a common ground to build up solidarity, is the key for their fight in future.


The recent strike of academic staff in Britain shows us that to tackle a common concern of the most employees (such as a cut in pension) is a potential way to build up solidarity. Dr. Tim Pringle, senior lecturer of Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London told us in an interview that academic employees are largely divided in terms of staffing, pay-scale, job security and even their own ideologies. It is a very difficult sector to organize. Yet, the commercialization of tertiary education and its consequential rigorous performance appraisal, fragmentation of jobs, declining pay have been piling up employees' dissatisfaction. The last straw came when the Universities UK (UUK, an employers' organization) offered a revised retirement plan, shifting their pensions from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme, where pensions are subject to changes in the stock market. Such a change could cost an employee to lose some GBP 10,000 of pension. The academic employees organized a strike and it was supported by the National Union of Students. The solidarity between employees and students successfully forced the UUK to halt this plan and restart negotiation with the trade union. Dr. Pringle stressed that higher education is not a commodity, but a public service; the commercialization of tertiary educations would only lead to job insecurity and the teaching quality would suffer. Thus, the trend of outsourcing and fragmentation of university jobs must stop.


The employees of tertiary education of Hong Kong are now facing the same fate. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University sacked part-time contract lecturers and re-employs them by hourly rate; the University of Hong Kong plans to reform the pay-scale, decoupling it from the civil servants' pay-scale and paying employees based on their performance appraisal. Dr. Chris Chan, associate professor of City University of Hong Kong, has been researching on labour issues and pointed out that many academics think that they are not workers, although they suffer the same job insecurity and fragmentation. He quoted Professor Guy Standing of SOAS, “under the threat of globalization, a new dangerous class, namely “precariat” (ie. precarious proletariat) is emerging. Different from the class of proletariat, the members of this new class are relatively well-educated, but lack of job and social security. They are angry with the establishment, have sufficient time and motivation to engage in social movement. Academic employees are exactly fitting in.” Dr. Chan recommends the academic employees should form a general union to organize the divided and fragmented employees; such an union should not only look into the employment situation in individual institutions, but partner with other civil society organizations and unions, to fight against unjust and market-oriented funding policies.