UCU survey shows extent of zero-hours contracts

Union surveys academy’s employment of casualised contracts. John Morgan reports

September 5, 2013

More than half of UK higher education institutions use zero-hours contracts, with over 24,000 academics and other staff on the controversial deals across 71 institutions, according to union figures.

The University and College Union’s survey of the sector shows the University of Edinburgh to be the biggest user of the contracts, with 2,712 academic staff on zero-hours deals (see table below).

However, it has now committed to scrapping them.

Using the national figures, the UCU estimates that 47 per cent of “teaching-only” contracts are zero-hours deals, which offer workers no certainty on their hours or income.

The government is undertaking a review of zero-hours contracts in light of increasing criticism from unions and sections of the media.

A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that “zero hours or other variable contracts are offered to thousands of students signed up for casual work to fit around their studies, and to highly skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses”.

But Simon Renton, president of the UCU, which used the Freedom of Information Act to gather the survey data, said that universities were using the contracts to “avoid the legislative requirements relating to fixed-term and part-time contracts”, including enhanced sick and maternity pay.

He added: “Without guaranteed income, workers on zero-hours contracts are unable to make financial or employment plans on a year-to-year or even month-to-month basis. They are also bad for students who miss out on…continuity and often receive reduced access to staff employed on minimal hours.”

The sector does not gather its own figures on the use of zero-hours contracts. The Higher Education Statistics Agency found that 187,865 “atypical staff” were employed by higher education institutions during the 2011-12 academic year, in addition to 378,250 “typical” staff.

However, the “atypical” category includes many types of “non-standard” contract, not just zero hours.

The UCU sent its request for information to 162 higher education institutions in July, with 142 responding. Of these, 75 (53 per cent) say they use zero-hours contracts for teaching, research and/or academic-related staff.

Data from 71 institutions showed that there were 21,371 teaching staff, 901 researchers and 2,155 academic-related staff on zero-hours contracts – a total of 24,4.

Zero hour has passed

An Edinburgh spokesman said that the university was “committed to providing high-quality part-time work to our postgraduate students” and as a result employs “significant numbers of staff on an ‘hours to be notified’ basis in teaching support, conference services and other roles – although no more than 5 per cent of work in the university is paid in this way”.

He added: “We are taking immediate steps to give staff guaranteed hours while working towards increased use of fractional/pro-rata contracts and ceasing the use of hours-to-be-notified contracts.” The spokesman said it was expected that the “large majority” of those on zero-hours contracts would have guaranteed hours by the end of 2013.

Suzanne Trill, UCU branch spokeswoman at Edinburgh, said that the scale of use of zero-hours contracts for academic staff “only became apparent through…data-gathering” after the union asked questions at the local level.

Others high in the UCU’s figures include the University of Bath (1,596 staff on zero hours). A Bath spokesman said that 1,194 of them were in academic-related roles, including demonstrators, examiners and other teaching support. He added that no work had been undertaken on 470 of these contracts in 2012-13.

A spokesman for Kingston University (1,069 zero-hours staff) said its contracts applied to occasional staff, most of whom “also hold more substantive roles in industry or in their respective professions”.

A Plymouth University (1,167 zero-hours staff) spokesman said its quoted figures “relate to associate lecturer and fixed-term researcher contracts and are not classed as zero hours as they are issued with a schedule of work”.

A spokeswoman for City University London (1,125 zero-hours staff) said that academic staff on such contracts were entitled to similar benefits as their full-time peers, including a defined-benefit pension scheme. Edinburgh also said it applied equal entitlements.

Ucea’s spokesman said it was “well aware of the trade unions’ interest in understanding the types of flexible employment used by the sector to meet changing demands and has offered joint work to develop a better understanding of practice and trends”.


InstitutionZero-hours staff
University of Edinburgh2,712
University of Bath1,596
Plymouth University1,167
City University London1,125
Kingston University1,069
University of Kent960
University of Sussex896
Royal College of Art777
University of Wolverhampton773
Lancaster University747

Source: UCU, 2013

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