MORE than 40 per cent of academic teaching and/or research staff in universities are on fixed-term contracts, according to figures published by the eight main higher education unions, which launched a campaign this week against the trend, writes Harriet Swain.
The proportion of academics on these contracts has more than doubled since the early 1980s and is particularly high in research, with 95 per cent of researchers in England and Wales and 96 per cent in Scotland now employed in this way.
In Scotland, 17 per cent of lecturers are on fixed-term contracts, which cover 14 per cent of lecturers in the rest of the United Kingdom. And up to a third of technicians in some universities are casualised.
Among the worst offenders, the union figures show, are: University of Bristol and St George's Medical School, which both employ a third of technicians on fixed-term contracts Leeds; which employs 32 per cent; and the Institute of Neurology and University of Leicester on 31.
The unions, which represent both academic and non-academic staff, claim fixed-term contracts lead to poor quality teaching and research, destroy career progression, cause stress-related illness, waste time spent job-hunting, make getting a mortgage difficult and mean staff are ineligible for maternity pay or pensions.
They want the government and institutions to end unjustified use of temporary contracts and ban waiver clauses, by which staff sign away rights to compensation for redundancy or unfair dismissal.
Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said: "The use of people on flexible contracts is an essential and normal part of employment in higher education as it is in other sectors of the economy, particularly where institutions are dealing with uncertain funding streams and uncertain requirements that may be of limited duration." He said problems faced by casual workers were little different from those of permanent staff.
The campaigning unions are: the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, MSF, Unison, Transport and General Workers' Union, GMB, EIS and Amalgamated Engineers and Electricians Union.
* A bleak future
Iris Kemp was a casual worker for 14 years before securing a permanent contract as a catering assistant at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.
Mrs Kemp started as a casual worker with no employment rights. After a year she was given a 20-week contract for 15 hours a week. This meant she was ineligible for sick pay and a pension and would have been ineligible for redundancy pay. This contract was renewed every year for the next 12 years.
"These terms and conditions are made for stress and mistrust in staff. I have seen staff being mentally bullied, being made to feel no part of the team. When I have asked them why they don't do something, they say they don't want to rock the boat.
"You cannot plan ahead. You don't even know how long you will be working. The contract finished in June and you didn't know if you were going back until October. You didn't get paid over the summer."
She said the job was becoming more stressful because universities were using more casual workers instead of paying overtime.