Leader - Zero-sum game

The growth in zero-hours contracts threatens the reputation of our universities and the morale of their staff

September 5, 2013

Miley Cyrus twerked and David Cameron showed off his paunch, but in truth silly season was short this year, as events in Syria brought the late August nonsense to an abrupt end.

There was plenty of real news earlier in the summer, too, not least the long-running story about zero-hours contracts and the dawning realisation that many on more favourable terms are working alongside zero-hours colleagues without even realising it.

In some industries such contracts have long been a fact of life, and not only the likes of fast-food franchises: ask how many journalists at the newspapers that have reported most vociferously on the perils of insecure contracts are themselves zero-hours employees and you may be surprised by the answer.

But the employment practices of national newspapers are a minority interest in comparison with the way our universities are staffed – a statement that, as so often, is amplified by the heightened expectations of high fee-paying students.

This week, the University and College Union published research suggesting that more than half our universities employ teaching, research and/or academic-related staff on zero-hours terms, with over 24,000 employees falling into this category at 71 institutions that use such contracts.

The first reaction to such a figure is that as far as teaching is concerned, these must all be doctoral students doing a bit of tutoring on the side, but the UCU says not: the figures also cover staff at a more senior level, it claims.

The danger is that a two-tier workforce emerges, with many academics made to feel unvalued, or that this isn’t the profession they signed up for

The coverage that the findings could produce is not hard to imagine: students paying £9,000 a year are being taught by zero-hours staff whose minds are likely to be on how they are going to pay the next electricity bill rather than on the job in hand.

Even if this is only a perception, it has the potential to be seriously damaging at a time when universities are just starting to feel as if they are finding their feet again after the bounce in student recruitment.

At the UCU congress in May, there were tales of zero-hours academics so impoverished that they had taken to “bin diving” to scavenge food, while another recalled being “told off” for using a toilet reserved for “members of staff”. Such colourful anecdotes are perhaps to be expected at the conference, but at the very least they tell a tale of a group of teaching professionals who feel badly marginalised – not what universities need at any time, let alone the moment they are having to renew their case for investment, public and private.

The danger is that a two-tier workforce emerges, with a significant proportion of academics made to feel unvalued, or that this isn’t the profession they signed up for.

Hard-nosed managers may say: who cares? There are far more academics seeking posts than there ever will be vacancies. But that’s not the point.

Yes, universities need to be fleet of foot, to be able to stretch and bend as circumstances demand – but they must not disenfranchise a whole tranche of their staff in the process.

Teaching is a caring profession, but it must be terribly difficult to care wholeheartedly about your work if your employer does not appear to care about you.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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