Away from the increasingly bitter disputes about academic pay, a quiet sea change is taking place in the rights of higher education's most marginalised workers. The European Union has passed a number of directives seeking to level the playing field between the highly casualised area of fixed-term and part-time work and the more lucrative territory inhabited by full-timers. These have led to some enlightened guidance, but it was in the courts that their effectiveness was always going to be felt.
The settlement offered to an hourly-paid lecturer by Leeds Metropolitan University is significant - even if no formal tribunal decision was made. By giving Susan Birch significant compensation and a permanent contract, the case builds on similar recent examples - most notably that of a retained firefighter seeking parity with full-time colleagues. Union leaders believe the Leeds settlement could encourage thousands of other claims. Which is why other universities may choose to act first. It is no accident that Westminster, headed by Geoffrey Copland who chairs the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, has paved the way by shifting about 200 academics from short-term contracts to permanent fractional positions as part of its national framework talks. Northumbria has followed suit and, as we reported earlier this month, Bristol is also making advances in transferring contract researchers from fixed-term to permanent contracts. But these universities stand out as beacons of best practice rather than part of a general tide. With the Quality Assurance Agency criticising courses taught entirely by hourly-paid staff and the EU bearing down, such moves should not just be applauded, they should be followed.