Zero-hours contracts and precarious academic work in the UK

The University and College Union is fighting back against zero-hour contracts that trap thousands in casualized work.

“Zero-hours contracts mean that you can’t make plans because you don’t want to be ‘unavailable’ when the call comes in. So in the end you are just hanging on, not being able to plan anything for months on end.”

This quote could be from any worker on a zero-hours contract in any sector of the UK economy. As it happens, it’s one of the people delivering frontline teaching in a UK university responding to a survey conducted by the University and College Union (UCU).

In the UK there are tens of thousands of people working on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of work from semester to semester. Many of them are students, recruited into doctoral programmes by universities hungry for their course fees and then used to teach fee-paying undergraduates. They often work long hours at the expense of their studies and are paid poor hourly rates.

Worse still is the condition of the tens of thousands of lecturers who attempt to piece together a living with zero-hours contracts, often deceptively cloaked with grand sounding titles like ‘Associate Tutor’ or the even more disingenuous ‘Teaching Fellow’.

Beneath these job titles is a reality in which teaching staff are expected to be available to work whenever called on. However, at the same time, the university has no obligation to ensure they have work or, as a consequence, an income.

A UCU report in July 2013 revealed that 53 per cent of UK universities made use of contracts like this to deliver frontline teaching. Many had hundreds of staff on insecure contracts, while some were maintaining reserve armies of precarious workers numbering in the thousands.

For the lecturers themselves the experience is one of constant uncertainty. Unable to know whether they will have ongoing employment, they cannot plan either their careers or, more painfully, their family lives. As another lecturer told us:

“Life on a casualized contract is very uncertain and precarious as one never knows until shortly before the academic year starts what work you are going to be offered, and frequently extra work can then be offered during the year at very short notice. It becomes impossible to plan your life. It is difficult to feel fully integrated into the life of the rest of the academic department because of the temporary nature of the contracts. You feel very much at the mercy of senior administrators who want to cut costs by axing part-time budgets.”

The organization that negotiates with the trade unions on behalf of UK universities on issues like pay and terms and conditions—the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA)—dismisses these concerns as the grumblings of a few disgruntled individuals.

UCEA prefers to quibble with figures and definitions and use the defence favoured by politicians, including the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, which suggests staff appreciate the flexibility these contracts offer.

There are doubtless some people for whom casual work suits their lives, but as every survey indicates, this is a very small minority and universities are hiding behind them to justify the mass casualization of their teaching workforce. The vast majority of people on casualized contracts would gladly trade the flexibility so valued by their employers for the security of predictable employment patterns and a guaranteed income. Like so much that has happened in higher education, this hyper-casualization of the teaching workforce has deep roots in the changing political economy of
the sector. Encouraged and coerced by successive governments pursuing a neoliberal public sector reform agenda, UK universities, especially English universities, have attempted to reconstitute themselves as lean, mean competition machines, pressed out of the standard business mold and geared to the bottom line.

Under the Conservative-led coalition government, this process has been ratcheted up. Since 2010, the English higher education sector has been subjected to a form of shock therapy as the government transformed its financial base almost overnight.

The removal of block grant funding from the state and the introduction of £9,000 a year tuition fees has left universities subject to the uncertainties of a competitive student fee market. Their sensitivity to fluctuations in student demand has of course made universities more committed than ever to their new workforce models: keep a lean core of permanent workers and a big flexible margin of precarious casualized staff, which can expand and contract as required.

The problem is that this comes at a heavy cost. Part of that cost is measured in the unfairness of exploitative casualized contracts. The lives of people on these contracts are characterized by anxiety, stress, and a constant fear that the next assignment will be their last.

University managements have shown themselves remarkably resilient when faced with such arguments. Unfairness and exploitation they can live with; what really bothers them is the damage that casualisation can do to their public reputations.

Partly, that’s about the wider public furore around zero-hours contracts in the UK. Zero-hours contracts have, on the whole, had very bad press in Britain. Along with rising private debt, they’ve come to symbolise the paradoxes in the government’s so-called economic recovery: a recovery of consumer confidence built on private debt and a recovery of employment based on part-time, flexible jobs that has done nothing to repair household incomes.

Official statistics published in the UK in February 2015 revealed that there were at least 1.8 million active contracts that guaranteed no hours and at least 700,000 people who were dependent on zero-hours contracts for their main employment. Britain’s union federation—the TUC—has made zero-hours contracts and casualization a central campaigning issue, reflecting the fact that these contracts are found right across the economy, from the retail, hospitality, and social care sectors, to higher and further education.

The public and political profile of zero-hours contracts became a key issue ahead of the general election on May 7, 2015 and this looks set to endure. The Prime Minister David Cameron found himself in some discomfort in a televised interview recently when asked if he could work on a zero-hours contract. Then-opposition leader Ed Miliband promised security for anyone who works more than 12 weeks on a zero-hours contract in the Labour party’s platform.

All this is very embarrassing for universities who are furiously marketing themselves to potential students as prestigious institutions. They don’t particularly like being named in the same sentence as high street bargain retail stores.

The reputation damage is compounded by the fact that students, who now have to pay £9,000 a year for their education, have high expectations of the education they receive. Organizing teaching through the deployment of casualized labour is a recipe for a chaotic student learning experience.

Lazy management workforce planning leads to classes with no lecturers; staff finding out they are expected to teach unfamiliar course material two weeks before the start of term; and overworked, underpaid lecturers working themselves flat out to try to repair the damage. No matter how committed and excellent they are, teaching staff on zero-hours contracts struggle to make up for the inadequacies of a system built on casualization.

As you’d expect at a time of such huge upheaval, higher education in the UK is a turbulent sector at the moment. Campaigns against various manifestations of the neoliberal offensive have emerged from staff, students, and even from the upper echelons of the university establishment. Not even the rarefied atmosphere of the Oxbridge common room is immune to spasms of revolt.

UCU, which organizes academic and professional support staff in the university and college sector, is at the forefront of many of these campaigns. On casualization, we have used the window provided by the public profile of zero-hours contracts to shine a bright light on the reality of precarious work in our sector.

We are the only organization who has tried to quantify casualization in higher education. We recently mobilized members to lobby their members of parliament in support of proposed legislation that would have placed strict limits on the use of zero-hours contracts. We have taken every opportunity to highlight in the media that casualization is as endemic in higher education as it is in the retail, hospitality, and social care sectors. Effecting longer term political change is dependent on maintaining this pressure and increasing its mass. UCU is in a unique position within the sector of being able to use this campaigning pressure as leverage to effect real change for people on casual contracts now.

As the recognized union for academic and professional support staff for the purposes of collective bargaining, UCU’s job is to maximise this opportunity to turn public pressure into real and meaningful change on the ground through organizing, campaigning and negotiating.

UCU’s national strategy for tackling zero-hours contracts operates at two levels. First, we want to turn up the heat nationally, using it to shape the political debate and change the overall context in which universities operate. We then need to use this context to put pressure on local universities, turning their competitive prestige consciousness to more laudable ends.

The union has identified a series of priority universities where campaigning and negotiating resources will be concentrated. Making progress at these institutions will put more pressure on others to follow suit. We also held a national day of action in November—events aimed at highlighting the issue of zero-hours contracts were held on over 50 campuses. There are signs that the pressure is beginning to work. In late 2013 the University of Edinburgh, which maintained more than 1,200 zero-hours contracts, said it would end that practice and has moved its staff onto contracts that guarantee hours. In December 2014, the University of Glasgow agreed to a new policy that discourages the use of zero-hours and other casual contracts. It has also put all its existing casual contracts under review with the aim of moving staff onto better ones.

With negotiations under way at several other target institutions, the union’s task is twofold. First, we have to export these advances more widely across the sector. Every example shows that there is a better way to organize the higher education workforce if we can change the university’s calculations of cost.

Second, we need to use these advances to widen the issue to capture the broader casualization of academic work of which zero-hours contracts are only the nastiest manifestation. We have to tackle the use of hourly-paid contracts where fractional or variable hours contracts make more sense. We also have to address the insane situation whereby 70 per cent of the UK university sector’s research community is employed on fixed-term contracts.

We have to be realistic. This is hard and often slow work and there is a disconnect between the timescales involved in changing university practices and the career lifetime of many of our university staff. The embedded complacency and neglect of university human resources departments means that thousands of university teachers will pass through the system on casual contracts by the time more fundamental change can be achieved.

It took decades to build the neoliberal university sector and its current human resources practices. It will take decades to unpack it and build something better. Nonetheless, UCU is making a real difference for academic staff in the UK now. Every advance we win not only changes conditions on the ground for our staff in the immediate term, it also helps to erode the claim that there is no alternative and adds force to public arguments for change.

On casualization, as with so much else, there is a better way. We have to build it now.


Jonathan White is a policy officer at the University and College Union and leads the union’s campaigning on casualization.