The indiscriminate use of part-time, fixed-term and hourly paid teachers by some university departments is storing up legal and financial trouble, a conference of linguists and human resource managers heard last week.
Under employment law that came into force in October, universities must transfer fixed-term contract staff to permanent contracts by 2006 unless there is justification for exclusion. But the Standing Conference of Heads of Modern Languages in Universities, which organised the London conference, said the position of hourly paid teachers and those on fractional fixed-term contracts was unclear and might be determined only by case law in which comparisons might be drawn with permanent lecturing staff.
Alan Dainty, employer relations manager at Sheffield Hallam University, said that some universities had no idea how many hourly paid teaching staff were employed by departmental deans and faculty heads. Appointment procedures varied from university to university. Some departments worked closely with human resources staff, but others were left to their own devices. "It's a secret garden," Mr Dainty said.
He said university managers must get a grip on the situation. "We have to take employment law seriously or it will cost the sector money."
David Head, chair of the SCHML, said: "Language departments are at the sharp end because they encompass the full range of contractual arrangements - from fledgling graduate teaching assistants to foreign-language specialists who have worked for years on fixed-term or fractional contracts."
The patchwork staffing situation is exacerbated because falls in student numbers and the piloting of new languages have led to less full-time recruitment.
Mr Dainty said that reliance on part-time, fixed-term and hourly paid teachers was partly a result of some managers abdicating responsibility for sub-par performances.
"There is a reluctance to give these people status [and a view] that they are not 'real lecturers'. We have a moral responsibility to treat people with due respect. Why shouldn't they be involved in course design, staff meetings and development?"
Andrew Mullen, assistant director of personnel at the University of Manchester, said that UK higher education had been singled out as one of worst examples of the use and abuse of fixed-term contracts.
University managers had to err on the side of caution and ask whether part-time teaching assistants were supplementary or not. If they are necessary, "why shouldn't they be put on permanent contracts?" Mr Mullen said. "Even if they are not doing the same as permanent staff, they might claim a reasonable objective comparison."
Professor Head said: "Some universities don't realise they are closer to a (legal) case than others because they have not paid attention to contracts of hourly paid staff."
About 20,000 hourly paid lecturers are expected to be shifted to permanent contracts, according to the Association of University Teachers and the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association.