Until recently I worked at London University as a part-time teacher of the austere-sounding English for academic purposes. I was based at a language centre which had flourished with the boom in cash-rich students from the Pacific Rim.
The centre had a core of full-time teachers. The rest of us were there to soak up demand. The work suited me: I enjoyed the teaching, and it filled some underemployed gaps in my week.
For several terms, I was paid per hour of classroom teaching. I tried to have flu at weekends because there was no sick pay. Nor was there extra money for preparation, marking or administration. I did not have a written contract, and work was agreed on a term-by-term basis.
The centre has since tightened up the way it employs part-timers but it remains true that part-time staff in higher education often come second best in pay and conditions of employment when compared with full-timers. Does this matter? I think it does, for reasons that include quality, equality of opportunity and the sheer weight of numbers - as well as part-timers' job satisfaction.
Part-time staff now comprise 8 per cent of academics in old universities. Between 1983/84 and 1993/94, their numbers increased by 71 per cent, from 2,865 to 4,908, while full-time staff rose by 29 per cent. Numbers for the new universities have not been collated separately. However, in 1992, for institutions formerly funded by the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council - covering both higher and further education - 10 per cent of staff were on part-time pro rata, or fractional, contracts. The full-time equivalent of a further 10 per cent were employed on an hourly-paid basis.
A survey published in 1993 by the Association of University Teachers indicated that the largest proportion of part-timers in the old sector were employed on fixed-term teaching-only contracts, which lasted an average of 1.2 years. One-third of these staff said they were working part-time because they could not get a full-time post.
Nearly two-thirds of part-time academic and related staff in the old universities are women. The existence of a two-tier system, with part-time staff generally worse off, could be construed as indirect discrimination.
In February the Government abolished all reference to the number of hours worked by part-time staff as an entitlement to legal rights. This followed a House of Lords ruling last year that differing rights on unfair dismissal and redundancy payment were incompatible with European law, because the majority of part-time employees are women, and these thresholds are indirect discrimination. Last September the European Court of Justice ruled it was indirectly discriminatory to exclude part-time workers from occupational pension schemes.
The link between quality and the employment of part-time staff has emerged in reports from the Higher Education Quality Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The reports mention the strengths part-time staff bring to a department, and also point out some shortcomings. Learning from Audit, published by the HEQC last year, noted: "Audit reports seemed to suggest that many part-time, casual and short-term staff were excluded from institution-based appraisal, staff development and promotion schemes."
In its overview report of the quality of university law teaching, published last year, HEFCE said: "In some cases departments relied upon part-time staff for substantial contributions to the teaching. When insufficient time was devoted to their involvement or where they did not receive adequate information about the course, the teaching programme suffered disruption and a lack of continuity."
University employers are taking on increasing numbers of part-time staff. They like the flexibility that part-timers bring. But problems relating to quality assurance may also be on the increase. In particular, the link between funding and the outcome of quality assessment will not be lost on employers.
What should be done? A good starting-point would be to pay staff on an hourly rate for work done outside the lecture hall. Better still, contracts which are fractional, or pro-rata of a full-time contract, should be accepted as the norm for part-time staff - with the chief exception of visiting specialist lecturers. Staff who are already employed on a pro-rata basis should have the same access as their full-time colleagues to teaching resources, appraisal, promotion and academic representation.
In addition, an analysis of assessments (THES, February 10) has shown a link between high quality in research and teaching. Pro-rata contracts would give hourly-paid academic staff, who are usually employed on a teaching-only basis, the opportunity to carry out research - and so contribute to a key factor in improving quality.
Stephen Court is a researcher for the Association of University Teachers.