Why I think hourly paid lecturers should be brought in from the cold

May 20, 2005

The author wishes to remain anonymous. He is a lecturer in a new university.

Teaching in UK universities and higher education colleges is heavily dependent on hourly paid lecturers, with about half of all academic teaching staff so employed. I believe that this is exploitative and not good for staff or students.

I have been an hourly paid university lecturer teaching in a single institution since 1993. My students are preparing for their placement year in industry. Their four-year course is very important economically to the university, and it's essential that they get their placements. I help them improve their writing, speaking and presentation skills, strengthen their team-working abilities and develop their understanding of what it means to be a professional. I'm an assistant unit leader and I have a development role. The students are a mixed bunch. Many are mature students, access students, ethnic minority students and foreign students - many need language support.

For the past six years, I have had at least 500 hours teaching a year, including lecturing to more than 400 students. Being a university lecturer is my livelihood but, unlike academic staff on full-time or fractional contracts, I'm employed on a "zero hours" contract. That means I have no guaranteed hours and I get paid only for contracted hours, not the actual hours I do. I am paid about half what I would be if employed on a standard contract, which is bad enough, but it also means my eventual pension entitlement will be significantly lower.

Planning is a nightmare, personally and academically, as I have no guarantee of work or money. It's only about a week before the first semester is due to start that I am told whether I will be getting paid hours and what my programme will be, but I can't "sign on" in the summer as I "have a job".

Between mid-September and the end of the following May, I have virtually no time off. I allow myself a couple of days before Christmas and Easter but then spend all the holidays marking. I teach a large number of students so the assessment load is very heavy.

There's a real sense of being out in the cold when you're hourly paid.

Unlike most such lecturers, I do have access to a desk and a PC. Many colleagues in my position - about 600 in my university - don't even have a pigeonhole or an email address.

You can't get involved in any academic meetings; you're not invited and wouldn't be paid to attend anyway. I can't get involved in university working parties. Other people get remission from teaching for these - I don't. I've had no appraisal or staff development in nine years.

The insecurity of this type of employment affects your whole attitude. I have a fear of being sick - there's no one to cover for me and I may be seen as "unreliable" and lose future work.

I enjoy my job. I'm good at it, and my students and colleagues appreciate my commitment. This isn't my opinion: in the minutes of faculty meetings, where student feedback is reported, my teaching is regularly singled out for praise, as it is in questionnaires that form part of the Quality Assurance Agency process.

But this model of employment is not sustainable. Apart from wanting the security and respect that go with a proper contract, I would really like to be able to share my experience with colleagues.

I think this would benefit the university. I suggest, as a starting point, that anyone doing 0.4 or more of a full-time contract for two or more years should be offered a permanent fractional contract. It's time we came in from the cold.

Next week, lecturers' union Natfhe will launch a campaign to get employers to recognise their moral obligation to provide fair and equal treatment for the hourly paid.

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