Insufficient data make it impossible to quantify the number of higher education staff on zero-hours contracts, a report says.
After more than a year of collaboration between universities and trade unions to shed light on the “casualisation” of academic staff, a working group was unable to reach a consensus on how many staff were employed on casual or hourly paid contracts.
That is because universities do not report their staff numbers and job categories to the Higher Education Statistics Agency in a uniform way, which makes it difficult to obtain sector-wide figures on employees on zero-hours or other casual contracts, according to the report compiled by the joint working group on hourly paid and casual staff, formed by the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff.
Hesa should consider implementing a “more consistent and reliable recording and reporting framework [so] categories of staff could be established”, the group recommends in its report, published on 23 July.
In the absence of official data, trade unions put forward their own statistics, obtained via Freedom of Information requests to universities, claiming that about 25,000 academic staff were on zero-hours contracts in 2013.
That figure, however, does not capture the complexity of employment in higher education, employers claim.
It may, for instance, include the “casual, temporary or variable arrangements [that] are either inevitable or actually appropriate”, such as short-term cover required for sickness and other absence, students working on campus and industry specialists employed for brief periods.
Despite the lack of agreement on numbers, Paul Bridge, the University and College Union’s head of higher education and a member of the joint working group, welcomed the “timely” report as a “first joint step in considering the issue of widespread casual and precarious employment in higher education”.
He highlighted in particular the group’s call for institutions to consider their treatment of staff on casual contracts, such as whether they are invited to take part in training and induction days.
Universities should also “consider arrangements and safeguards they can put in place to reduce the degree of uncertainty that exists with such employment”, the group says.
“Planned employment patterns based on guaranteed minimum hours, decent and transparent rates of pay and other locally agreed terms and conditions should be the norm, not the exception,” Mr Bridge said.
While employers and trade unions disagreed on points of principle, such as the use of zero-hours contracts, the “joint working has, we believe, contributed to a better understanding on all sides”, said Helen Fairfoul, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.