Yes, say the experts. "In the strict use of the meaning of the word `proletariat', there has been been a proletarianisation of the writing class - the teaching and researching class," says Professor AH Halsey of Nuffield College, Oxford, and author of the book The Decline of Donnish Dominion. Increasingly, for lack of money, lecturers and researchers are being hired on part-time or short-term contracts. And again - because money is so tight - more and more are failing to win funding for their research proposals. Their pay has also fallen way behind that of top civil servants and lawyers with whom they used to be level-pegging in the Fifties.
According to Dr Ewart Keep, of the industrial relations research unit at Warwick University business school, "Academics are heading in the direction of becoming the new white-collar working class. In the past 10 to 15 years they have experienced an enormous loss of status, tenure and job security have gone, and more and more of their traditional work is being undertaken by casual labour contracted in on a part-time or fixed-term basis."
Not everyone takes such a gloomy view. Ian McNay, professor of educational management at Anglia Polytechnic University, points out that as a professor earning pounds 36,000 a year he is in the top 15 per cent of earners. Academics may have fallen behind some other groups but they are doing better than that other white-collar profession group - social workers. "University life is still very comfortable for the academics," he says.
But even McNay is concerned about the mushrooming army of fixed-contract and casual staff in higher education. Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency analysed by the Association of University Teachers show a huge increase in the past five years.
Since 1992, staff appointed on fixed-term contracts have outnumbered those on permanent contracts. In the academic year 1990-91, for example, two-thirds of the new academic staff recruited in the UK were put on permanent contracts and one-third were on fixed contracts. By the year 1994-5, the most recent year for which complete data are available, the picture looked different: fewer than one-quarter were hired permanently and almost three- quarters were on fixed-term contracts.
Researchers have always been hired on short-term contracts. What is new about today's scene is the proportion of teaching academics being recruited on this basis and the fact that many more researchers proportionately are on fixed contracts.
British higher education is beginning to look a lot more like the American system where the phenomenon of the gypsy scholar hopping from one campus to another is well known. It is also beginning to look more like further education, which has traditionally used more part-timers than full-timers to teach students.
The reasons for the trend are straightforward enough. To gain more income universities need to admit more students and to shine in the research assessment exercise. But with their star academics engaged in ground-breaking research, where are the teachers for all the new students? Universities can't afford to hire more permanent staff. So they turn to freelance operators and postgraduate students.
Does that matter? Some people think not, arguing it enables up-to-date skills and knowledge to enter the lecture theatre. Moreover some academics prefer to work part-time, finding it gives them the time they need for their families or other work. Professor Joe Foweraker, head of Essex University's government department, believes the effects of casualisation are positive. Hiring postgraduate students is a bonus because they are committed and enthusiastic teachers. It helps them fund their postgraduate studies and improves their employment prospects.
But many believe the changing nature of academic careers must have a long-term deleterious effect on the quality of higher education. Ian McNay thinks it is bad for students in their first and second years to be taught by academics so lacking in experience.
For Dr Keep the main worry is that it will be increasingly difficult to recruit and retain academics of sufficient calibre, particularly in subjects like law, business studies and engineering, where career prospects are better outside higher education than inside. "We are doing this to save costs in the short term but in the long run we are mortgaging the viability of academe as a profession," he says.
"In 1980 one of the few things you could say about this country was that we had a world-class university system. I think it will be very hard to say that in the year 2010. The generation who made that possible will have retired and people of equal calibre will not have been retained."
Higher education academics shudder at the sight of the large armies of casual workers in further education, where the marketplace - some would say the jungle - rules supreme. If they really knew what was going on in further education they would be even more alarmed. College principals have been ruthless in their treatment of part-timers, forcing them on to the books of employment agencies to get round their legal obligations, cutting their pay rates and taking out injunctions when staff threatened industrial action.
College principals maintain that the burgeoning use of part-time staff does not affect quality. But in his annual report last month the chief inspector of colleges, Dr Terry Melia, warned that increasing use of part- timers to cut costs was not always in the best interests of students. The part-timers rarely played a part in curriculum planning and other development, thus putting standards at risk, he said.
Teaching unions in higher and further education also are concerned that the use of casual staff is driving down pay. Since 1982, for example, salaries for main grade lecturers in the old universities have suffered a slight decline in real terms, according to the AUT. Part-timers receive poor conditions and prospects and often have to bear the risks of unemployment, sick pay and ensuring a pension.
The national university shutdown next week is a gesture of pure frustration on the part of university employees, argues Dr Keep.
"But if it makes the vice-chancellors realise that staff have reached the end of their tether and are thoroughly fed up with the mess, it will have been worthwhile"n
`You lie awake at night wondering if your contract will be renewed'
After 15 years at the University of East Anglia's climatic research unit Clare Goodess is still living on a knife-edge, employed from contract to contract, wondering whether she will continue to be in work next week, next month, next year, whenever her current money runs out.
A senior research associate, she will have reached her 40th research contract by the end of this year. Is that a record? Ms Goodess doesn't know, but she does know she would rather have the security of a permanent job so that she can be sure her mortgage repayments and grocery bills will be covered.
"I don't think fear and worry are particularly good motivators for producing good science," she says. "There are times when you lie awake at night wondering whether your contract is going to be renewed, wondering whether you have made a mistake in booking that holiday."
Aged 38 and on a salary of pounds 22,000 a year, she wasn't able to take out a mortgage until five years ago and then it was with the bank she has been using since she was 16. Other contract researchers she knows have found it very difficult to get a mortgage because of the insecurity of their employment. None are entitled to sue for unfair dismissal if they are laid off. All have to sign an unfair dismissal waiver. The fact that Ms Goodess has worked in this way for so long shows she is able to bring in money for the climatic unit and that there is a high degree of security about the work, she argues. Thus she and others should be treated in the same way as typical academics, most of whom are not on three months' notice.Reuse content