Number of UK academics employed on zero-hours contracts rises

Female academics are more likely to be employed on zero-hours contracts than male colleagues

February 3, 2023
Source: iStock

More UK academics are being employed on zero-hours contracts, figures show, amid ongoing strikes related to the working conditions of university staff.

The statistics show women were disproportionately hired on such contracts, which experts say cause financial and professional insecurities.

The figures come as two lecturers who were employed on temporary contracts have sued the University of Oxford, claiming they should have been given the same rights as permanent members of staff.

The latest Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that 4,420 “typical” academics across the UK were on zero-hours contracts in 2021-22 – a 21 per cent rise from 2020-21, though still below 6,520 recorded in 2017-18, the first year for which such figures are available.

This means that around 1.9 per cent of all academics were on such contracts – up from 1.6 per cent the year before, though again still below 2017-18 (3.1 per cent).

The data exclude those on “atypical” contracts, whose working arrangements are “not permanent, involve complex employment relationships and/or involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider”.

Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, associate dean for law and policing at York St John University, said universities were still struggling to get back to the financial position they were in before the pandemic and are recruiting temporary staff to save money.

A zero-hours contract is one where the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours, and the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered.

They don’t give academics the opportunities to participate fully and excel in their job role, and cause “financial insecurity”, Dr Ndzi told Times Higher Education.

“Not all training opportunities are open to them; they are not allocated research time or supported to undertake research,” she said.

Short-term contracts also make it more difficult to get promoted and reduce contact time with students, she added.

Jeff Pocock, national anti-casualisation committee member of the University and College Union (UCU), said the vast majority of academics want permanent positions that free them of the stress of applying for new posts.

“A permanent post means being able to apply for a mortgage, a credit card, personal loans, rent a property, plan your outgoings and for the future, have a family and live a normal life,” he added.

Part of the UCU’s current dispute with the sector involves calls for an agreed framework to “eliminate insecure employment practices” such as temporary and zero-hours contracts.

Despite women making up just 47.8 per cent of academic staff who were employed regularly, 52.5 per cent of those on zero-hours contracts were female, where a sex was provided.

Dr Ndzi said this was a result of gender imbalance in the workplace, the “maternity penalty” and the cost of childcare.

Staff hired on zero-hours contracts are also increasingly likely to be hired on a short-term basis.

Of the 4,420 last year, 51 per cent were on a fixed-term contract – up from just 30 per cent two years before and the highest on record.

Mr Pocock said that decision-makers took a very conservative view of the sector’s future, which is reflected in the trend of offering more casual contracts.

In the Oxford case, creative writing lecturers Alice Jolly and Rebecca Abrams have claimed they were “ousted” in part because of their campaign to secure better working conditions, describing the institution as “one of the worst offenders when it comes to the ‘Uberisation’ of higher education teaching”.

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