WHAT a week to choose for strike action. While shops were being shuttered and public transport systems were grinding to a halt on Wednesday, some hardy souls were manning picket lines at Glasgow University. As they huddled outside the snow-covered main building, students brought them coffee and hot rolls.

It’s a scene that doesn’t quite fit with the media narrative of swindled students vs pampered professors.

Of course Scottish students don’t pay tuition fees, so won’t have reached for their calculators as soon as the strike dates were announced, but another important dimension of this action is being overlooked. Many of these university workers have something important in common with those they teach: precarious employment.

When mention is made of insecure, zero-hours, exploitative jobs, most people think of the retail and hospitality industries, not of higher education. The “gig economy” of precarious labour conjures up images of driving taxis or delivering food, not planning tutorials and marking essays. Yet this is the reality for academics across the UK.

By now you’ll probably have read the headline figures cited in the current dispute: the University and College Union (UCU) says the proposed changes to pensions will cost the average academic £10,000 a year in retirement. But this figure – based on an annual income of £49,000 – needs to be put into context. For a start, many early-career researchers are not continuously employed, let alone paid such salaries.

Dr Donna Yates, a lecturer in antiquities trafficking and art crime at Glasgow University, spent five years on a series of temporary contracts before securing a permanent position last summer. She says it was only then that she started paying close attention to her pension entitlements: “I figured I had no hope of ever seeing a pension from academic work, as I had little confidence that I’d actually land a permanent job.”

The UCU spent much of 2016 campaigning on precarious employment in higher education – and achieved some successes – but it has been hampered by a lack of reliable data about a complicated employment landscape. Those in precarious academic work generally fall into three categories: PhD students who teach during their studies; people who are substantively employed elsewhere but do academic work on the side; and people who are substantively employed on fixed-term university contracts and depend on these for their living.

When put under pressure to justify their employment practices, many universities point to the first and second categories and argue that flexible contracts suit these workers. And while it is widely suspected that a very significant number of teaching staff fall into the last category, there’s a lack of evidence to prove it.

In its snapshot report from April 2016, the UCU notes that “scandalously, we simply don’t know the real scale of precarious employment in UK higher education”, because the body that collects statistics about universities doesn’t require them to provide detailed enough information. The union wrote to all of the universities in the UK asking them to engage with it to tackle the abuse of casual contracts, and received positive responses from Scottish institutions including Aberdeen, Abertay, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian and Queen Margaret University Edinburgh.

However, most of these responses related to the scrapping of zero-hours contracts, which many might be shocked to learn are used in universities at all. The statistics we do have show that 54 per cent of all academic staff are on insecure contracts. That ivory tower doesn’t seem such a comfortable place to be when there’s a chance you’ll be descending the stairs in a few months’ time with no job to go to.

Dr Catherine Oakley of the University of Leeds is a cultural historian of work and health. She recently conducted a survey of around 100 university researchers employed on fixed-term contracts as part of her efforts with colleagues to push for changes to the current system. Her survey sample suggests that the nature of postdoctoral employment is changing. "As fewer permanent jobs are created, we are seeing the rise of the "serial" postdoc, moving from one fixed-term post to another with reduced prospects of career progression in the sector beyond this", she notes. Catherine believes that the current pensions dispute has exposed the gulf between permanent and precarious staff. She says that increases in student numbers do not appear to tally with the number of vacancies for teaching posts, and suspects that a "hidden army" of precarious workers are being hired by universities through informal arrangements to pick up teaching workloads. "They are paid by the hour, or on part-time, fixed-term contracts, to do the same teaching as their permanently-employed senior colleagues" she notes, "but at a fraction of the cost, with no benefits or security, and with half-promises of more secure positions that may or may not materialise".

Understandably, many academics starting out in their careers are wary of speaking out about their employment status – after all, doing so risks making their already precarious position even more so. They also have a lot more to lose by going out on strike. Privately, they exchange horror stories and weigh up whether to cut their losses.

One told me: “I’ve jumped between very short-term contracts or part-time teaching, and I’ve been financially disadvantaged by the university so many times through late payments and underpayments.” Another said: “I’ve lost count of the short-term fixed contracts and P45s. I’m often required to provide my passport for these positions, despite having studied and worked at the same institution for best part of a decade. It’s humiliating.”

These are the people charged with educating our next generation of politicians, teachers and lawyers, scientists, engineers and doctors. They are the future of our world-renowned higher education institutions. If working conditions drive talented teachers and researchers away, reputations for excellence built over centuries could be trashed within decades.

Action is needed now. By the time the true scale of the problem becomes clear, it might be too late.