A casual attitude towards staff

October 31, 2003

How to achieve better conditions for part-time lecturers? Bring in the QAA, say Mark Van Hoorebeek and James Marson

It seems that time is running out for universities that make full (and perhaps exploitative) use of part-time, fixed-term or hourly contracts.

Last year's amendments to the Part-Time Workers Regulations and the Fixed-Term Employees Regulations have made substantive changes to the law.

However, before the "hourly army" of lecturers invades the human resources department demanding pro rata pay and benefits, we must remember that we have been here before.

The Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations of 2000 brought a similar optimistic response. Helen Gavaghan, for example, wrote in a Nature article in 2000: "With the deliberate, stately progress of an oil tanker changing course, the UK's universities are wrestling the wheel round to steer a path away from practices that discriminate against women, minorities, part-time staff and those on fixed-term contracts.

Progress might be slow, but it is under way."

UK universities took little action in response to these regulations, however, and, according to recent trade union figures, the treatment of this group of workers has not significantly improved in the three years since its implementation. Despite the threat of litigation, discriminatory and exploitative practices are still evident in the sector and many universities appear to be adopting "a wait and see approach".

More than 50,000 lecturers are employed part time in UK colleges and universities, the majority of these working and receiving hourly pay or working under agency contracts. Indeed, the higher education sector employs 11 per cent of all fixed-term contract workers in the UK and is second only to the hotel and catering sector in the percentage of fixed-term contract workers it employs.

This February, the Association of University Teachers and the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association anticipated 20,000 of the 50,000 hourly paid lecturers would be transferred to permanent contracts in response to the new legislation. However, to date this has happened in only a small percentage of cases. Indeed, lecturers' union Natfhe reports that a number of institutions have not reassigned any hourly staff to pro rata or permanent contracts, so Natfhe and the AUT are now considering the prospect of legal action.

Litigation may well force universities to take notice of part-time, hourly paid or fixed-term lecturers. However, another and potentially more subtle route may be found through the arbiters of university performance. Quality assessment, through structures such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the research assessment exercise, combined with the potential threat of damaging and potentially expensive litigation, could compel university departments to change their practices rapidly. For example, much of the QAA's work involves poring over module files and quality assessment documents. It is unlikely, however, that any of these reveal potentially questionable employment practices, even though this has a big impact on the quality of research and education being offered by universities.

The quality assessors (the QAA and RAE panels and those compiling league tables) and the quality providers (the universities) should reflect on the role played by part-time, fixed-term and hourly paid lecturers and their contribution to the departments being assessed. How would your institution answer if questioned over its staffing practices by the QAA or in the RAE?

Mark Van Hoorebeek is a lecturer in the department of law at Sheffield University and James Marson is a lecturer in the department of law at Sheffield Hallam University.

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