The apparent rise of zero-hours contracts for academics has been halted by increasingly demanding students who, in return for higher fees, now expect professors to be full-time, it has been said.
Laurence Hopkins, a research and employee relations analyst from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, made the claim at a conference on the issue held on 4 July by the Work Foundation thinktank.
Mr Hopkins told the Flexibility or Insecurity? Exploring the Rise in Zero-hours Contracts conference that “the use of these types of arrangements” was being stemmed “because students are now driving up quality”.
He added that students paying £9,000 a year “want to see full-time professionals teaching them”.
But Ian Brinkley, director of the Work Foundation, said that he expected a “steady increase” in the use of zero-hours contracts, including at universities.
Workers on the contracts are not guaranteed a set number of hours per week, which critics claim leads to uncertainty and low levels of pay. In June, the University and College Union congress heard suggestions that scholars employed under these contracts had even been forced to rifle through supermarket bins to make ends meet.
UCU delegates passed a motion in favour of abolishing the contracts and called on Ucea to collect data on how widespread the practice was.
In April, the Labour shadow secretary of state for health, Andy Burnham, also suggested that they should be banned, and last month the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced that it would be investigating whether they lead to abusive practices by employers.
Yet none of the panel members at the Work Foundation event called for an outright ban, favouring a code of conduct instead.
Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirral South, said they created an undignified “power imbalance” between employer and employee, and asked whether the time spent by staff waiting to see if they would be given work should not be covered by minimum wage legislation.
Nicola Smith, head of economic and social affairs at the Trades Union Congress, suggested that employees on such contracts should be guaranteed a minimum retainer.
It is unclear how many workers in universities are on zero-hours contracts, although 82,000 workers in the sector are currently on “atypical” contracts, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency figures.
Nationally, 200,000 people (0.7 per cent of the workforce) are on the contracts, according to the Work Foundation, up from 89,000 in 2004. Nearly a quarter of these are full-time students.
On the same day as the conference, Ucea published the Higher Education Workplace Survey 2013.
The report finds limited evidence that the university workforce is being “casualised”, as some critics have claimed, pointing out that only 13 per cent of institutions surveyed said they were increasing the number of staff on non-permanent contracts in order to boost “efficiency, [and] enhance workforce flexibility”.
Meanwhile, the report adds that fewer than one in 20 universities say they are switching from full-time contracts to part-time ones.