EI calls on ILO and governments to improve working conditions in tertiary education

The necessity to improve terms and conditions of employment in tertiary education, and in particular, to limit the alarming increase in precarious work in the sector was at the heart of debates at the International Labour Organisation’s Global Dialogue Forum on Employment Terms and Conditions in Tertiary Education.

On the workers’ side, Education International (EI) was represented at the Forum on by a strong delegation led by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Executive Director David Robinson. On the employers’ side, only employers from private tertiary institutions were present. Governments were jointly led by representatives of Kenya and the Netherlands.

The Global Dialogue Forum, held from 18-20 September in Geneva, Switzerland, examined employment terms and conditions, professional rights and social dialogue mechanisms, including collective bargaining and collegial governance in tertiary education, and grounded its work on issues highlighted by the paper on employment terms and conditions in tertiary education published by the ILO Secretariat. This paper gives an overview of trends in tertiary education and their impact on working conditions in the sector.

The paper identified several factors and trends, especially the growth in many parts of the world of precarious and fixed-term employment contracts, that are placing stresses and strains on the tertiary workforce. Contrary to the provisions of the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, many of these contracts provide extremely low salaries, few if any benefits, and no job security.

“Without job security, there is no formal protection for academic freedom,” argued David Robinson in his opening remarks at the Global Dialogue Forum. The forum’s key aim was to adopt consensus points, which would help improve the working conditions of personnel in the tertiary sector.

Education International strongly advocated for the inclusion of strong recommendations for future concrete actions by the ILO and members states to address the challenges faced by teachers, researchers and education support personnel in tertiary education. The EI delegation called in particular for the convening of a follow-up experts’ meeting to develop a relevant ILO instrument addressing precarious work and the specific challenges faced by contingent faculty. The proposed instrument would complement the above-mentioned 1997 UNESCO Recommendation, but this suggestion was opposed by the private employers’ representatives at the forum. This is not surprising, given the precariousness of employment conditions in some institutions.

Nevertheless, the final consensus points agreed at the meeting require the ILO office, in collaboration with UNESCO, to actively promote the UNESCO 1997 Recommendation and strengthen the capacity of the Joint ILO/UNESCO Committee of Experts on the Application of the Recommendations concerning Teaching Personnel (CEART). In addition, the ILO office should undertake and disseminate further research on terms and conditions in tertiary education, identify obstacles to, and good practices in, achieving gender equity in tertiary education, as well as policies and practices in the use of contingent fixed-term employment in tertiary education recognising the need for both flexibility and decent work. This research is to inform possible future action, which could include a tripartite meeting.

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