Zero-Hours and Fixed-Term Contracts in Higher Education


My UCU branch commissioned me to write an article on zero-hours contracts in higher education for the newsletter, it’s very much aimed at UCU members (and at getting more people unionised), but is still a useful summary and there isn’t a huge amount of information out there. Having said that, the UCU have published an amazing “survival guide” that I found half-way through writing this which is much better!


Zero-hours and fixed-term contracts at universities 

Zero-hours and fixed-term contracts have recently come into public focus in the news, government policy and in union action. Although they have been around for a while, and are not just used in universities, casual contracts can be very difficult to manage as an employee, leading to the feeling that the future is always uncertain. “Flexibility” is the main justification for the use of such contracts (on the part of employers), but perhaps a better word would be vulnerability.

This essay explains the differences in status and rights between zero-hours and fixed-term contracts, the extent of use of these contracts at universities and the looks critically justification of “flexibility”. Finally some of the excellent work UCU has been doing is described regarding the abolition of these contracts in order to give hope to those currently exploited by them


What are zero-hours and fixed-term contracts?

Although the term “zero-hours” is not defined in employment legislation, it refers to the kind of contract between employer and employee in which the employer is not obliged to provide a minimum number of hours, and the employees is conversely not obliged to accept any hours offered. The key idea behind “zero-hours” contracts is flexibility, for both employer and employee (on paper).

According to recent UCU research, over half the universities in the UK use zero-hours contracts and 61% of further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have teaching staff on zero-hour contracts. This is a shocking statistic considering that overall only 27% of all companies in the UK use these kinds of contract.

More specifically, UCU’s research has revealed that just under half (46%) of universities (that responded to the freedom of information requests) had more than 200 staff on zero-hour contracts, in the remaining 54% of institutions the number employed on zero-hour contracts ranged from one to 199, and five institutions had more than 1,000 people on zero-hour contracts.

Many academics, however, are also on fixed-term contracts: according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), two-thirds of part-time teaching-only contracts are fixed-term, while over two-thirds of research-only contracts are fixed term, irrespective of whether they are full or part-time. Fixed-term contracts are often for one or two academic years, but they can also be for summer or short-term jobs, for example teaching pre-sessional English to international students.

The immediate practical difference for employees on zero-hours and fixed-term contracts at universities is that the latter receive sick-pay. If someone on a zero-hours contract cannot make it to work on a particular day then their hours will be recalculated so that this time is removed from the pay at the end of the month. On a fixed-term contract you have the “luxury” of staying at home when you are ill (although realistically teaching staff on either contract will feel pressure to go to work despite being ill).


What does it feel like?

Employers will often tell you that many employees prefer to be on zero-hours (more so than fixed-term), as this gives them “flexibility” (the magic word!), for example if they have children, or more than one job, or are studying at the same time (whatever happened to job-related training?).

But this flexibility mostly benefits the employer, and what it really means to the employee is that they do not know whether they will have the same hours, the same modules, or even a job at all at the beginning of the next academic year. This greatly reduces the ability to plan ahead, to get a mortgage, go on holiday (‘I might need that money!’) or even just settle in the place you are working.

A recent Guardian article compiles accounts of what it is like to be employed on zero-hours contracts: one employee makes the important point that after the preparation, marking, office hours and meetings are taken into account, his wages barely exceed minimum wage (this is supposed to be a professional job); another describes how her employment future is dependent on her relationship with her course leader – ‘If the course leader changed, I could lose it all.’

A colleague of mine recently told me that she once waited until the first day of the new academic year to be offered any hours, and as one associate lecturer in fine art says in the article above, ‘it is this precariousness that is so exhausting’. Not only that, but it is also ‘the unfairness of working on these terms alongside academics on permanent contracts doing less teaching for far more money’ that is frustrating.

Another colleague has spent four years as an hourly-paid lecturer, and despite approaching the number of teaching hours expected from a full-time contract, she has still not managed to reach the £16,000 income-repayment threshold of her student-loans. At a starting salary of just under £30,000 a year, this means that the university saves £14,000 for every lecturer employed on an hourly-paid contract.


What are your rights?

According to ACAS, ‘zero hours workers have the same employment rights as regular workers, although they may have breaks in their contracts, which affect rights that accrue over time. Zero hours workers are entitled to annual leave, the National Minimum Wage and pay for work-related travel in the same way as regular workers.’

The crucial point here is whether or not there is a break in your contract between academic years (or particular provisions). If you have worked for your employer for one year if you started before 6 April 2012 or two years if you started on or after that date, then you are entitled to notice of dismissal, written reasons for dismissal and to claim compensation if unfairly dismissed.

Of course the issue will be whether or not receiving the same hours (or any hours) one academic year after having been a solid, continuous employee for two or more years could be called a “dismissal”, but in extreme cases there is definitely precedent in employment law that suggests there is a legal argument to be made.

Employers may argue that they ‘have no obligation to offer the employee any work’ because they are not an employee – this is a grey area when it comes to zero-hours contracts. It depends ostensibly on the “agreement” between you and your employer on what your employment status is (“worker” or “employee”), but there are clear indicators, such as having a written contract with an agreed number of hours per week as part of an established team. University lecturers are clearly employees though, even on an hourly-paid or zero-hours contract, and are therefore arguably entitled to some guarantee of future employment.

Fixed-term contracts offer one important benefit that zero-hours contracts don’t: sick pay. But otherwise, they leave employees in a similar position of insecurity. However, if you have been in service with a particular institution for two years or more, then not renewing a contract is considered a dismissal. Employees then have a right to a written statement of reasons – in 2008 UCU won a tribunal case (Ball vs Aberdeen University) on the grounds that fixed-term funding could not be used as a justification for fixed-term employment contracts.

For both zero-hours and fixed-term contracts there is also an important part of the 2002 Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations that provide for employees to regard their position as permanent if they have been in continuous service for four years. Effectively, if you have had more than one fixed-term contract and continuous service for four years, your contract should automatically become permanent. However, for zero-hours contracts there seems to be a lack of clarity as to how many hours you might expect from a permanent contract.

It is important to contact your UCU branch before taking any action (or becoming a member of the UCU if you are not already one). The UCU has produced a survival guide for hourly-paid and fixed-term employees. It is important to know your rights but also to get support from your union.


Why do employers use zero-hours?

The main reason you will hear from employers for using zero-hours or fixed-term contracts is that they need a ‘flexible workforce’ in order to meet a ‘changeable or temporary need’ for staff. Advantages for employers include being able to have access to a pool of staff when demand arises, no ongoing requirement to provide guaranteed work, and most of all it is a cheaper option (not just to having permanent or full-time staff, but also as an alternative to agency fees).

Employers will also often justify use of zero-hours contracts on the basis that employees also want to be flexible with their work time – the flexibility works both ways, employees have no obligation to accept work and only the most exploitative employers have demanded that you only have one zero-hours job (this is now banned). It cannot be denied that in some cases zero-hours contracts allow people with other commitments, such as childcare or study, to work, and are also a way that the unemployed can get back into the job market.

As John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, has said: ‘Maintaining the UK’s flexible labour market is crucial to keeping unemployment down. Zero-hours contracts are vital for a successful jobs market, but they must be fair and work for all parties. (my emphasis)’ The last point is crucial, it is where zero-hours contracts are being used for no good reason that they are exploitative.

Robert Fildes at the Lancaster University Management School has forcefully argued that much demand is predictable sensible forecasting methods with measurable uncertainty. ‘Statistical baseline forecasts can capture any structure in the data, while expert judgemental adjustments can be used for extraordinary circumstances…There is no excuse for only offering such contracts other than managerial incompetence and a willingness to pass on risk to those least likely to be able to cope with it in the work force.’

The argument that flexibility is an inevitable part of modern life and therefore also a necessary part of modern employment must be looked at against the backdrop of growing vulnerability in the world. Joseph Stieglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, has repeatedly brough attention to the fact that the success of a nation’s economy cannot be measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) alone. ‘Regardless of how fast GDP grows, an economic system that fails to deliver gains for most of its citizens, and in which a rising share of the population faces increasing insecurity, is, in a fundamental sense, a failed economic system.’


What are UCU doing about it?

The UCU have being doing some excellent work campaigning against the use of zero-hours and fixed-term contracts and have won some important battles. The statistics used above come from a series of Freedom of Information requests that the UCU sent to every UK higher education institution (145 responded), the findings of which are summarised in here. As a direct result of these requests, the University of Edinburgh vowed to abolish zero-hours contracts.

As part of the Stamp Out Casual Contracts campaign, the UCU next took on Gower College, the biggest user of zero-hours contracts in the Welsh FE sector, employing almost 80 staff on such contracts. Although not an ideal result, the college has agreed to employ all those staff with four years’ service at above 418 annual teaching hours (including remission) on a fractional post as a result.

Most recently, the UCU, in an unlikely and unintentional alliance with Ofsted, has shown that the quality of teaching at two South-West colleges, Bristol College and Wiltshire College, has suffered as a result of employing many staff on zero-hours and agency contracts. In the case of Bristol College, Ofsted has reported that the use of casual contracts ‘contributed to students’ below average achievement’. At Wiltshire College, Ofsted noted a ‘significant variation in the quality of teaching within and between faculties and subject areas’. Since these reports, the colleges have responded well to UCU calls to reduce casualisation and both colleges have put in place plans to change their employment practices.

In mainstream politics the UCU campaign (in conjunction with other union campaigns, TUC for example) is also starting to have an effect: Labour has now put zero-hours contracts firmly on their 2015 election agenda, although their promises are somewhat conservative, they do include the ‘right for employees who have consistently worked regular hours to receive a fixed-hours contract automatically’ (a slight but important modification to the existing right to a permanent contract after four years, introducing the idea that the hours themselves should be a part of that automatic transfer to permanence).


Anti-Casualisation Day of Action

The 5th November is the UCU Anti-casualisation Day of Action and events are happening at branches all over the country. UCU members have thought of all kinds of different ways to engage, recruit and help higher education staff on zero-hours and fixed-term contracts, such as drop-in clinics for people to seek help with workplace issues, further Freedom of Information requests regarding use of causal contracts, talks and tips on how to survive zero-hours contracts, and also induction events with stalls to increase awareness of causalisation.

At Coventry University we have helped to organise a Tea and Cake event for hourly-paid lecturers to encourage people in the same situation to meet up and have a chat, not necessarily in a political or unionised way, but in order to show that they are not as isolated as they perhaps think. The biggest challenge for changing the situation with casualised labour at universities is bringing those people together in the first place, as they are often only at work when they need to be and don’t get the chance to form the kind of solidarity needed for change, but perhaps more importantly, for general wellbeing.


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