The plight of staff employed on rolling contracts was raised by several delegates at the University and College Union's annual congress, this year held in Manchester, with some arguing that fixed-term arrangements were now the norm for most new lecturers.
Pam Thompson, a research associate in the University of Manchester's School of Medicine, said 870 people at the institution were at constant risk of losing their jobs because they were on short-term contracts.
"One person has been on fixed-term contracts at Manchester for the past 39 years," she said, drawing gasps of astonishment from the hall.
"Casualisation is coming to all of us if we do not fight it," warned Philip Inglesant, a senior research fellow in science, technology and innovation studies at the University of Edinburgh.
"There is an argument that the angst caused by casualisation spurs on academics to achieve, but research shows [they] perform better when they have security," he said.
Marion Hersh, senior lecturer in biomedical engineering at the University of Glasgow, agreed about the negative effects of short-term contracts on research outputs.
"As well as the horrendous effect on researchers, it is also not very good for research," she said.
Hedley Bashforth, UCU branch secretary at the University of Bath, believed short-term contracts were often used to deprive workers of their employment rights.
"Staff cannot complete their probation if they are on a 10-month contract as this takes 12 months," he said. "This is increasingly what is happening, and we need to bring attention to it."
Delegates passed a motion calling for the abolition of "zero-hours contracts" in which academics are employed on an ad hoc basis with no guarantee of teaching within a year. The use of unpaid postgraduates to carry out seminars was also condemned.
The motion also highlighted how part-time staff paid by the hour were often treated less favourably than full-time staff doing comparable work and were denied opportunities to develop their careers or attend academic conferences.
Rachel Featherstone, a senior lecturer in research methods in the School of Health and Social Care at Teesside University, drew attention to the difficulties of working part-time in the sector.
"You cannot plan your life if you are only on a 12-hour-a-week contract," she said.
Terry Murphy, senior lecturer in social work at Teesside, added: "Fixed-term staff have the greatest difficulty in our sector. We need to concentrate on their needs and collect data so we can put pressure on abusive institutions when we find them."
Liza van Zyl, who teaches Welsh at Cardiff University, added that full-time staff needed to consider how their work patterns were affecting their part-time peers, particularly academics working unpaid overtime.
"Every hour a full-time staff member works...that is not in their contract is an hour taken away from someone like [me] who is hourly paid," she said.
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