Trade unions are to launch a campaign to improve the conditions of hourly paid workers in old universities, where they make up about half of all teaching staff.
The Association of University Teachers wants a minimum hourly wage of Pounds 35.34 for hourly paid teaching staff in old universities. It will push to make this a key part of the joint union pay claim to the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association later this year.
Matt Waddup, AUT assistant general secretary, said: "Hourly paid staff are the sleeping giants of higher education. They are treated appallingly, but without them many courses would not run and students' work would not be marked."
Lecturers at new universities already have a minimum hourly rate negotiated by lecturers' union Natfhe. This is included in the pay framework hammered out last year.
Roger Kline, head of the universities' section at Natfhe, said: "This was a break issue for us. We negotiated a minimum rate of £31.41, which works out at about £35 once recent pay rises take effect.
"For the first time, hourly paid workers in new universities are eligible for grade and pay increments - allowing comparability with permanent members of staff. We are watching carefully to ensure that this part of the agreement is properly monitored."
Natfhe has also commissioned research from Colin Bryson of Nottingham Trent University to look at the impact of institutions' use of hourly paid staff on the quality of teaching. This will be published next month.
Mr Kline said: "Our research shows that, above all, hourly paid workers want job security and to be treated with respect. They want the opportunity to do research and they want office space."
The treatment of hourly paid workers is becoming an increasingly urgent issue in higher education as their numbers remain high.
In 2002, a paper by Mr Bryson estimated that there were about 75,000 hourly paid teaching staff in universities - broadly equivalent to the total number of full-time or pro-rata academic teaching staff in the sector.
Mr Bryson broke the 75,000 into four categories: 28,000 hourly paid lecturers; at least 15,000 contract research staff who teach part time; at least 15,000 postgraduate students who teach part time; and several thousand more staff, some already employed in academic or academic-related or support roles, who teach part time.
He found huge variations between universities.
"At one London old university some 40 per cent of undergraduate teaching was done by postgraduate students. At a large new university, 20 per cent of all teaching was undertaken by hourly paid 'sessional lecturers'," he said.