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About 3 per cent of “typical” staff employed in UK universities are on zero-hours contracts, including 6,500 academics, according to the first official sector data on the controversial mode of employment.
The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in total almost 11,500 people – both academics and support staff – working in universities on a standard basis were on a zero-hours contract in 2017-18, out of a total staff head count of about 430,000.
However, separate figures that only look at the number of people who are employed on “atypical” academic contracts show that 23 per cent of them, or just over 16,000, had a zero-hours contract, which means that the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours.
The data also show that for “typical” staff, the number of academics being paid by the hour was more than 28,000, or 13 per cent of the workforce, with the vast majority of them working part time. The share of all part-time academics who were on hourly-paid contracts was 38 per cent.
It is the first time that Hesa has published official data on zero-hours contracts, where people are employed without any guarantee of the amount of work that will be offered.
In the past, employers and unions have clashed over the true extent of employment on zero-hours contracts, given the lack of official statistics. But the argument is unlikely to go away with the Hesa release given the wide difference in the figures for typical and atypical staff.
Atypical staff are defined as those “whose working arrangements are not permanent, involve complex employment relationships and/or involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider”. They include those employed for one-off tasks or for less than four weeks, but can also be longer-term roles “that involve a high degree of flexibility often in a contract to work as and when required”.
Jonathan White, policy officer at the University and College Union, said that “it is always good to have more data” but the Hesa figures “raise a lot of questions that need answering” such as the extent to which atypical staff were front line teachers on “precarious” employment terms.
He said that atypical staff on zero-hours contracts might include PhD students teaching undergraduates. Other atypical staff might be on contracts that did not meet the legal definition of “zero hours” but were little better in terms of the amount of work that they guaranteed.
But Helen Fairfoul, chief executive of the University and Colleges Employers’ Association maintained that the zero-hours figures for atypical contracts represented staff on “very short-term engagements”.
“HE institutions explain that many of these staff are professionals and experts from outside the sector who value these flexible arrangements,” she said.
Elsewhere, the data show that overall staff numbers in universities rose 2 per cent last year, with a similar increase for both academic and non-academic staff.
A third of all academics were employed on a fixed-term contract, while the share on teaching-only contracts went up by almost 2 percentage points to 29 per cent.
This drift towards teaching-only contracts (which represented 26 per cent of contracts in 2015-16) could lead to suggestions that it is a result of universities preparing for the next research excellence framework, under which all staff involved in research will be included in the assessment.
Meanwhile, the latest figures on the female professoriate show that there continues to be progress, albeit slowly, towards more women reaching the level of professor. Of all professors, 26 per cent were women in 2017-18, a figure that has increased by one percentage point year-on-year since 2013-14, according to Hesa.
For academic staff employed on other senior academic contracts, 36 per cent were women in 2017-18, a share that has also gradually increased from 33 per cent in 2013-14.
And the staff data showed that the number of staff from other European Union countries has continued to rise in line with the employment of UK and non-EU staff, suggesting that any major “Brexit effect” on EU staff numbers has yet to materialise.
In total, there were 37,255 academics from other EU countries at UK universities in 2017-18, up from 35,920 the year before, and representing 17.6 per cent of all academic staff.