Fears are growing that universities may lay off academics on casual contracts rather than give them the permanent jobs to which they are entitled under European regulations.
Universities have until 2006 to comply with the regulations, which should improve job security for tens of thousands of academics on fixed-term contracts, including disproportionately more women and people from ethnic minorities.
But The Times Higher has uncovered evidence that at least one leading university has already laid off casual lecturing staff, using PhD students to fill their teaching duties, rather than give them permanent contracts (see case study below). Fears are growing that others may follow.
The problem emerged as the Association of University Teachers launched its campaign this week to alert universities to the regulations and their responsibilities in ending the use of fixed-term contracts in academe.
Jane Thompson, the AUT's policy officer, said: "Universities are not doing enough to prepare for this legislation, and there is certainly a fear among casual workers that they will be made permanently redundant rather than permanent."
Ms Thompson said that any university making staff redundant in this way was in breach of the regulations, which have a "no detriment" clause.
The fixed-term employees regulations came into force in 2002. They state that after four years on two or more contracts, a fixed-term contract will automatically become permanent - unless the fixed-term element can be "objectively justified".
The AUT campaign, known as Security Alert II, has been launched halfway through the period of notice that universities have to implement the regulations, which expires in July 2006.
In all, 48 per cent of female academics and 38 per cent of male academics are on fixed-term contracts, according to the AUT. Nine out of ten researchers in UK universities are employed on short-term contracts and, two years after the introduction of the regulations, 93 per cent of university researchers are still employed on contracts of three years or less.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "The continuing use of fixed-term contracts is a hidden scandal in higher education.
"It is about time universities woke up to their responsibilities. The Government changed the law to stop this abuse two years ago, and the universities themselves signed an agreement to reduce the use of fixed-term contracts.
"And yet, two years on, very few universities have reduced their use of fixed-term contracts."
The union and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association have drawn up guidance on the management of these contracts and how to reduce them. It says: "The aim must be to achieve a proper balance between flexible working and organisational efficiency, on the one hand, and security of employment and fair treatment of employees, on the other."
It also warns against unlawful discrimination. "Statistical evidence suggests that a greater proportion of women and ethnic minorities are employed on fixed-term and casual contracts," it says. "It is important that institutions bear this in mind."
Declan Leyden, assistant director of Ucea, warned against scaremongering about job losses. "While some .academics may lose their jobs as universities switch to more permanent contracts, this will be no different from the current situation in which employees lose their jobs as a result of the culture of casualisation."
GETTING IT WRONG
Joanna and Mary were visiting tutors teaching up to eight hours a week in a humanities department at a prestigious London university.
They claim the university made them redundant as a result of the European fixed-term regulations. They have hammered out an agreement and prefer to remain anonymous.
In spring, their department finalised a restructuring document. All but one of the long-term visiting tutors who had made significant contributions to the university were dismissed. Their teaching duties are being shifted on to PhD students.
"The fixed-term regulations are designed to ensure that by 2006 anyone who has been on a fixed-term contract for more than four years without good cause be made permanent," Joanna said. "The tragedy is that rather than take us on permanently, the university is getting rid of us."
Their AUT representative said: "The university was quite clear it was doing this to comply with the fixed-term regulations and these two women suffered detrimentally as a result of this change."
Joanna and Mary were initially offered very small amounts of redundancy pay. The university has subsequently increased this sixfold and the two have agreed not to go to a tribunal.
But they are bitter as the department relied on casual staff to allow the full-timers to concentrate on their research.
"This department got a five in the last research assessment exercise because the casual staff freed up the full-time staff," said Joanna. "We underpinned that success and our reward is to be sacked."