In a sector notorious for employing more staff on casual contracts than any other industry except hotel and catering, Manchester Metropolitan University's plans to move all its hourly paid workers to permanent contracts at first looked like a real breakthrough.
But this week, lecturers' union Natfhe condemned the move as a "sleight of hand" as it emerged that although casual staff would get permanent contracts, they would not be guaranteed work.
Earlier this month, Peter Gibbs, MMU's employee relations manager, sent associate lecturers a letter explaining that the new permanent contracts would allow the university to "flex or vary" the hours worked from term to term and year to year.
That infuriated lecturers. Chris Dawson, who has worked at MMU on a regularly renewed hourly paid contract since 1997, wrote to colleagues: "As an associate lecturer, we can be given a zero-hours contract allocation (no pay), but still be considered as employed (not entitled to state benefits). What are we supposed to pay the rent with?"
He said that the fixed-term contracts gave security by at least being clear about when the contract ended. "How can I obtain a mortgage with this kind of job security?" he asked.
Andy Pike, national official for Natfhe, said: "On the one hand, the university is claiming that it wishes to improve employment security; but on the other hand, it is removing its commitment to provide work. It is demonstrating a very clever sleight of hand that increases its flexibility without a thought for staff."
A spokesman for MMU said that he could not confirm how many staff were affected because he was unable to contact the human resources department before The Times Higher 's deadline. "We see the move to permanent contracts as a real step forwards," he said.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee last year attacked "callous and short-sighted" university managers after reporting that half of all researchers in science - about 40,000 - were on short-term contracts.