Russian-language students and graduates from University College London's School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies are demanding that plans to change the status of two lecturers should be abandoned amid fears that the move could weaken the school's reputation for excellence.
The SSEES plans to shift Russian lecturers Natasha Kurashova and Lydia Buravova to academic-year contracts when their five-year contracts expire in September.
In an open letter to UCL's provost Sir Derek Roberts the protesters claim that the "inequitable and demeaning downgrading of two fine academics" represents "a potentially damaging blow for the Russian-language teaching programme at SSEES".
Donald Rayfield, from the Russian department at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "London University cannot afford to acquire the reputation of a Vietnamese sweatshop employer."
SSEES director George Kolankiewicz defended the proposals, which were part of an institution-wide streamlining of pay and conditions, he said.
Teaching staff not involved in research duties are to be moved to permanent contracts based on a seven-month teaching year. But Professor Kolankiewicz said the SSEES had ensured that additional duties and responsibilities, such as pastoral care and supervising study abroad, would bring the contracts as near as possible to full time.
"We believe that moving from a position of no security to a permanent contract with a small shortfall is the best arrangement that can be provided," he said.
A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said the contracts, which he defined as rolling one-year contracts, represented a trend towards casualisation of non-research staff across UCL and a weakening of teaching standards at the SSEES.