Universities could find themselves embroiled in costly employment tribunals unless they do more to comply with European Union regulations on fixed-term contracts, the Association of University Teachers warned this week.
The union held its annual meeting for fixed-term staff last week and found widespread concern that universities were not doing enough to switch staff to permanent contracts.
From July 10, universities will have to justify why staff employed for four years or more on fixed-term contracts have not been moved to open-ended or permanent contracts.
Jane Thompson, AUT policy officer, said: "Our members are unhappy that policies have not yet been agreed. Sadly, due to the lack of commitment on the part of universities to tackle this issue we will be looking at using the legal provisions come July 10."
Four years ago, when the regulations were introduced, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association and the trade unions issued joint guidance on compliance. It spelt out the importance of having "transparent, necessary and objective reasons" for retaining fixed-term contracts.
Ms Thompson said that as of July 10, staff who had four years of continuous service behind them, and who were still on a fixed-term contract, would be able to request a shift to a permanent contract. The university must reply to the request within 21 days. If it keeps that member of staff on a fixed-term contract, it has to provide objective reasons. Employees can then seek to have that decision overturned at tribunal.
She said that the number of tribunals could be substantial. According to AUT figures, there were just over 66,000 academic staff on fixed-term contracts in 2003-04 - 44 per cent of the total.
A snapshot survey by the The Times Higher earlier this year found wide variation in practice. Bristol University, for example, has shifted half of its researchers on to permanent contracts but other Russell Group universities have made little progress.
Cambridge University employs 2,489 contract research staff, of whom all but four are on fixed-term contracts.
A spokesman said: "We believe our policy is justifiable under the regulations and guidance as the funding for the posts is time limited."
At new universities - which employ the bulk of hourly paid teaching staff - more progress appears to have been made.
Roger Kline, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Universities such as Northumbria, Westminster and Brighton have made significant progress on this front and many others are following suit."
He added: "Natfhe is in negotiations to implement the new pay framework - we will not sign off on these agreements until we are sure that the university is complying with the regulations."
A Ucea spokesperson said: "Staff who have been on fixed-term contracts totalling four years will, as of July, automatically switch to permanent contracts unless institutions can show objective reasons for continuing on a fixed-term basis. A reduced proportion of new employees are being taken on on fixed-term contracts, partly because of other equal terms elements of the Fixed Term Regulations. But fixed-term contracts will continue to be appropriate for some."