All-round answer to zero-hours conundrum

Generalists on fair terms would offer the flexibility the sector needs, argues Philip Roddis

September 26, 2013

Privileged rigidity demands flexibility from those least able to shape its terms or bear its consequences

I only learned I was on a zero-hours contract when, having taught some 400 hours a year in various roles at Sheffield Hallam University, I realised that the figure had been reduced to about 50. No manager even had the courtesy to inform me.

I tried to take the university to an employment tribunal, but the nature of the contract I had signed persuaded the judge to strike out my claim. The human resources manager, who had described the contract as “a flexible teaching resource” allowing Sheffield Hallam “to respond to fluctuation in student numbers”, strode out triumphantly, allowing the door to shut loudly behind him.

I’ve known happier moments.

Call me a fool, but I am hardly alone in not reading the small print: former colleagues also thought they were signing up to more typical contracts.

Would I have signed it had I known? Probably. After all, in today’s world, options are limited.

But I would have aired my disgust. Zero hours equal zero imagination; unforgivable given academia’s raison d’être.

True to the polytechnic ideal and now aged 60, I have spent decades moving between industry and “chalkface”. I have worked on contracts that are fair and – more recently – exploitative. One thing I have learned is that when the public sector imitates the private, it tends to do so crudely. So when apparatchiks play the flexibility card to justify zero security for lecturers they claim to value, I’m disappointed but unfazed.

In the short term, the ability to shed one in three lecturers at the drop of a hat has obvious advantages for universities faced with fluctuating student demand and the financially driven need to ditch courses and run fewer classes in some subjects.

But in the longer term, the risks should be equally obvious. What loyalty will such lecturers show? What happens to “quality” and the much-touted “student experience”?

I wonder whether the public is aware of the terms and conditions under which so many of those entrusted with equipping the problem-solvers of tomorrow are employed.

The need for flexibility in higher education is undeniable, but there are better ways than this. Why not cultivate a pool of all-rounders on fair contracts who are able to teach in wider disciplinary ranges?

I’m not saying that engineers can teach literature, but short of such extremes, versatility is desirable. I’ve taught computing, social science and digital arts at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and supported dissertation students further afield. With some preparation I could take first years in journalism, psychology, criminology and sociology. With a little more, I’d be safe with history, literature and business, too.

There are many like me: generalists who sniff out the big questions all disciplines pose; educators bringing textbook principles to life via the experience gathered throughout their richly varied careers.

We could not only realign flexibility with equity, but also balance the deeper, narrower subject expertise academia will always need with the breadth many feel is sadly lacking.

In practice, however, the pocket fiefdoms of “pyramid organisations” cannot see, far less value, versatility. Why would managers in history or journalism care that a zero-hours lecturer can also teach sociology? How does that ease their headaches?

Sub-empires pursuing parochial agendas and “to hell with the whole” are hardly new. The private sector saw the problem long ago and began to fix it. In time, universities will get there. For the time being, zero-hours contracts in higher education look set to continue as privileged rigidity demands flexibility from those least able to shape its terms or bear its consequences.

Would I advise others to fight? Yes, if you can pour heart, soul and savings into the battle – and not go under if you lose. Yes, if you are cornered, with little to lose. Yes, if you’ve a stubborn streak strong enough to hang in there when the easier thing is to quit. If not, swallow it. Universities play hardball and employment tribunals are not for the meek.

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Reader's comments (2)

Philip Roddis hadn't read his contract. That's really annoying. The door slam was unnecessary, but I imagine the reason was that the manager felt their own time had been utterly wasted (the writing of the statements, the travel, the day(s) taken out for the hearing, the expensive hiring of lawyers - really frustrating). I'm surprised the ET let it through the front door if it was so clear-cut. So the union must have dressed it slightly? It doesn't matter if you're in the public or private sector. Scheduled teaching time is a direct cost, driven by student numbers: it's not an overhead. Zero-hours contracts deliver the flexibility required of direct costs. The bit about generalism is wishful thinking. Employment at university is still as much about patronage as it ever was. Universities want the latest in a subject, which usually means new PhDs. They are also making the full-timers and fractionals work to the hilt of the maxima, meaning fewer hours for those on zero-hours contracts. I think zero-hours contracts were originally meant for shift workers in factories and retail to cover short-term changes in demand. Doesn't exactly fit what is in reality an annual shift at a university. It's worth fighting for a contractual fixed maximum in a year-on-year reduction (400 to 50 in a year is evil). And clarity of terms. Plus a three-month prior deadline on any annual shift (leaving a dramatically revised offer of work starting in October until the month before, sometimes the week before, or the day before, is also evil)? Philip's was an all-your-eggs-in-one basket thing. The secret is to cultivate working relationships with several institutions and spread working time among them. This gives one the whiphand with the contractors and means hours lost may be easier to replace. Hindsight's a fine thing, though.
Very interesting comments from STILLERS, but I don't think his/her suggested measures would be enough to fix the problem. The university wouldn't agree to the three-month prior deadline as the whole point is that they assign AL hours after the clearing dust settles in order to plug gaps. They're also not interested in contract negotations in my experience (indeed, getting a contract at all before you start is usually impossible). Finally, I've tried the 'cultivating relationships with several institutions' approach and it just leaves you with a huge travel bill and no further ahead. Zero-hours contracts are unfair and must be legislated out of existence.

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