Would-be contract killers

July 3, 1998

THES reporters look at the spread of casualisation and its effects and the campaign against it

UNIONS are preparing a legal strategy against universities and colleges that employ staff on casual contracts with poor conditions of service.

As well as lobbying nationally to end these contracts, they aim to step up actions in defence of individuals or groups who suffer discrimination because of them.

Launching the second phase of their campaign against rising casualisation, the eight main higher education unions have written to Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, asking him to lead the way in banning the unjustified use of short-term contracts.

They argue that casualisation harms staff, students and research quality and is especially hard on groups such as women and blacks.

Employers suggest that flexible contracts can be a good way into work for these groups, but unions say it can mean their being ghettoised on less favourable contracts.

The unions' focus over the next month will be on the waiver clauses by which employees on fixed-term contracts agree to forgo statutory entitlements to redundancy pay or claims of unfair dismissal when their contract expires. They have named nearly 90 institutions that force some new staff to sign away employment rights.

The government's recent Fairness at Work white paper, subject of consultations until the end of this month, indicated the government would ban waiver clauses for unfair dismissal but allow their use for avoiding redundancy payments. For many staff in the higher education sector - which employs more than 43 per cent of staff on fixed-term or hourly paid contracts - this is not good enough.

Pressure will be on Sir Michael Bett's independent review committee to address the issue, which was largely neglected by Dearing.

The committee's first step has been to collect information from institutions on the number of casual staff they employ - the first national survey of its kind.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency collects data only on academic appointments that involve working periods of at least a quarter of a full-time equivalent job in an academic year. As well as overlooking non-academic staff employed in higher education, this in effect ignores almost all casual and hourly paid staff.

HESA estimates that more than 55,000 people were employed on fixed-term contracts last year.

In addition, the Association of University Teachers estimates that there are 33,000 hourly paid casual teachers in all universities, and Natfhe suggests there are 18,350 in post-1992 universities alone. Some institutions employ more hourly paid staff than all other kinds of staff combined, including those on fixed-term contracts.

Unpublished research by Colin Bryson, a senior lecturer in human resources at Nottingham Trent University, shows the number of contract research staff has increased four times since 1980, while the number of permanent research posts has fallen from 13 per cent to 5 per cent of the total. At the same time, the number of permanent lecturing staff has risen by just 4 per cent, compared with a 90 per cent increase in posts overall.

Mr Bryson's survey of academic teaching posts advertised last year shows that 33 per cent were for fixed-term contracts.

Employers will need to address this to head off likely moves from Europe against such contracts.

But Mr Bryson warns of other dangers. Agencies such as Education Lecturing Services, which now employs many staff in further education, are talking about making inroads into higher education, while a number of universities are contracting out services such as computing and catering.

The worry for unions is that if most fixed-term contracts are scrapped, employers may simply look for other ways of employing non-permanent staff.

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