A legal victory for the University and College Union has provided clarification on the rights of the tens of thousands of higher education staff on fixed-term contracts.
Lancaster University has been ordered to pay 60 days' salary to a group of up to 30 employees whose fixed-term contracts were not renewed, after an employment tribunal said that this amounted to dismissal.
The university breached labour relations laws requiring employers to consult with employee representatives about avoiding or reducing dismissals when they propose to dismiss 20 or more workers, the tribunal found.
Of the 179,000 staff in higher education in 2008-09, 63,000 - about a third - were on fixed-term contracts, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said the Lancaster ruling was a major victory.
"Universities have to understand that they cannot just wait for fixed-term contracts to expire and then get rid of staff," she said.
The union is pursuing two similar tribunal cases at the moment.
Jane Thompson, a UCU national industrial relations official, said most of the union's members on fixed-term contracts were researchers in Russell Group and 1994 Group universities, or hourly paid lecturers in post-1992 institutions.
The tribunal says in its ruling that Lancaster had sent the UCU monthly lists of staff whose contracts were due to expire in the following four-month period.
But a UCU regional support officer, Marie Monaghan, realised when she took up her post that this was not the meaningful consultation required by law.
Lancaster's approach "was to serve notice by way of a list and then effectively leave it to (the UCU) to raise issues," the tribunal says in its ruling. "That is an impermissible approach. The duty is upon the respondent (Lancaster) to consult."
The tribunal also makes clear that not renewing a fixed-term contract constitutes dismissal: "Since the employer's obligation is to consult about his proposals to dismiss, it follows that for those employees engaged upon fixed-term or limited-term contracts, the employer must consult before making any final decision not to renew the contract."
The ruling says it was a "significant mitigating factor" that the UCU "condoned the respondent's practices for around 12 years" before taking issue with them.
However, it goes on to note that the "burden of collective consultation and notification" rested with Lancaster, opting for an award of 60 days' salary.
Lancaster said the award was made only in relation to staff who were made redundant.
Although the exact number that would receive a payout had yet to be decided, Lancaster said it would be less than one-third of the 89 staff included in the UCU claim.
It added that between April and June 2009 it was "in a period of transition while moving from one system of collective consultation around the ending of fixed-term contracts to another". It said that previously, the university "had a long-standing arrangement with the campus trade unions to inform them of the turnover of fixed-term contracts, the number of which is normal within the sector".