Dozens of University and College Union branches held events across the UK on 5 November to raise awareness of casualisation of staff working within higher education.
Three in five colleges (61 per cent) and more than half of universities (53 per cent) employ teaching staff on zero-hours contracts, UCU says.
Millions of students are taught by temporary teachers with little or no employment rights or job security, it adds.
The union is calling on higher education staff to write to their MPs to highlight the use of casualisation and the problems it creates for employees in higher education.
“Students in colleges and universities would be horrified if they knew that many of those who teach them have little or no employment rights, no job security and that most of our ground-breaking research staff are without permanent contracts,” said Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary.
“As we approach the election all the parties need to clearly set out what they will do to tackle the no-rights culture so many teachers and researchers find themselves stuck in.”
However, a Universities and Colleges Employers Association spokesman said the UCU was overstating how prevalent zero-hours contracts are in higher education, saying staff on “atypical” contracts made up only 3.7 per cent of the full-time equivalent academic workforce, according to latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Many staff, including students employed by universities, preferred the flexibility that zero-hours contracts allowed, a Ucea spokesman said.
“Variable contracts, which may at times have an ‘hours to be notified’ format, are offered to thousands of students signed up for flexible work at their institution that will fit around their studies,” he said.
“They are also used to retain the highly-valued input of skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses.”
Ucea added that it had committed to working with the UCU to investigate the use of casualised labour, including zero-hours contracts, as part of the 2014-15 pay settlement, which increased pay by 2 per cent.
The work, which is now underway, will “consider how higher education employers can achieve appropriate flexibility in the workforce while adopting fair and equitable employment practices”, it said.