New law sets union on warpath, reports Claire Sanders
Universities must shift casual staff to permanent contracts if they are to avoid a rash of tribunal cases, the University and College Union has warned.
European Union regulations on fixed-term contracts came into force on Monday. They state that staff who have been on successive fixed-term contracts for four years or more should become permanent - unless the university can "objectively justify" continued use of a fixed-term contract.
In a statement, the UCU said: "Despite knowledge of these provisions over four years, most employers have done nothing to accommodate the new legislation."
There are nearly 70,000 academic and related staff on short-term contracts, which is more than four in ten, says the UCU.
The most recent statistics from the union show that almost half of staff on short-term contracts have been employed for four or more years at the same university.
Three out of ten have been on employed fixed-term contracts for six or more years. The problem is particularly acute in the case of researchers, nine out of ten of whom are on fixed-term contracts.
Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said: "Universities need to take the new legislation seriously and get their acts together.
"Staff on short-term contracts are less likely to get promoted, are paid less and work long hours with no extra reward. Universities cannot continue to exploit them."
In a joint statement, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association and Universities UK said: "Employers are fully aware of the new employment laws relating to fixed-term contracts. To suggest that they are failing to accommodate the new legislation is unjustified."
They argue that several factors, including continuous service, determine whether a fixed-term contract becomes permanent. Their statement says:
"Employers can extend or renew a fixed-term contract for objective business reasons, including uncertain student demand for a particular course,"
In May, the Association of University Teachers carried out an online survey of 1,200 fixed-term and hourly paid academics. It revealed widespread discontent. Some academics said that their universities deliberately sought to undermine legislation by engineering breaks in service.