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University reveals hundreds of academic staff are employed on controversial zero-hour contracts

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Lancaster University are currently employing a number of its staff using controversial zero-hours contracts. This follows the recent strike action by the University and College Union (UCU) on October 31st.

University figures, in response to a freedom of information request from UCU, indicate that there are 747 academic and academic-related staff on such contracts, of whom 352 are postgraduate students.

The use of contracts like these is a contentious issue due to the uncertainty of workers’ schedules who are employed using them. This uncertainty means that employees may not know the amount of money they will earn on a month-to-month basis.

Also referred to as “variable hours contracts”, the terms of employment given in them create an “on call” relationship between an employer and employee. They stipulate that the employer is not obliged to provide work for the employee, nor is the employee obliged to work for the employer.

Research released in August estimated that around 1 million people may be employed using these contracts nationally.

The University told SCAN that the contracts were not common for its staff, stating: “variable hours contracts are not widely used by the university and only account for 3% of overall work.”

The University was also keen to stress the positives of such contracts for students: “Around half of Lancaster’s variable hours contracts are held by students who rely on fitting flexible and convenient paid work around their studies. They value these contracts as they provide both work experience and income without tying them to fixed hours of work.”

However, the statement also revealed a variety of other personnel, not just students, are employed using the contracts as it went on to say: “Different kinds of teaching-related staff are also issued with variable hours contracts including visiting lecturers from other universities, PhD students, examiners, teaching assistants and specialists who might be brought in to help out with specific research projects.”

The views expressed in the University’s statement differed markedly from those expressed to SCAN by Joseph Thornberry, Vice-President of Lancaster UCU, who said of the number of staff the university employ on zero-hours contracts: “Even taking account of the fact that some PG students engage in teaching as part of their own development, this is a very high figure, higher than most other universities. This is what university management means when it talks about ‘flexibility’ – the establishment of a disposable reserve of casual academic labour.”

Many Higher Education employers see the contracts as useful because they allow flexibility in areas where it is difficult to predict demand. Some see this as particularly important following rule changes that allow universities to recruit an unlimited amount of students who receive grades ABB or better in their A levels.

Thornberry’s comments demonstrate that the use of zero-hours contracts by universities is a national issue for UCU, who found that universities are twice as likely as other employers to use the arrangement.

His assertion that the use of the contracts is higher at Lancaster than other institutions is reflected in official figures. Although over half of the Universities in the UK are currently operating zero-hours contracts, less than half (46%) of those that do use them to employ over 200 staff.

This data, revealed by several freedom of information requests by UCU, shows that Lancaster has the 10th highest number of staff on zero-hours contracts nationally.

Thornberry went on to explain that UCU are attempting to reduce the number of zero-hours used in higher education: “Nationally, UCU has been trying to engage the university employers in negotiation to reduce the number of zero-hour contracts in HE but the employers have refused to talk unless the union first accepts the wage-cutting 1% pay offer.”

Joe O’Neill, LUSU Vice President (Education) echoed Thornberry’s sentiment: “There are major issues surrounding the use of zero-hours contracts at this university. Currently there are over 700 staff on zero-hours contracts and given that universities are meant to be progressive institutions, questions have to be asked.”

However, O’Neill also admitted that LUSU currently use zero hours contracts, although the policy is under review: “The Students’ Union is currently reviewing its own practices with regards to our student-staff who are employed on zero-hours contracts, weighing up the benefit of flexibility for our student-staff and assessing how best to allocate reliable hours when and where our staff want them.”

That said, O’Neill was also earnest in expressing the distinction between university and union staff on zero hours contracts stating: “the university staff on zero-hours are generally in a completely different situation to the students employed by the Students’ Union and I’d take the view that Lancaster should be following the example set by the University of Edinburgh and agreeing to end the use of zero hours contracts on our campus.”

Nationally, the University of Edinburgh was found to be the biggest user of zero-hours contracts but has pledged to stop using them entirely by the end of this year. Lancaster University have made no commitment to reduce its use of the contracts as they maintain that their use is positive for both employer and employee.

UCU disagree and have labelled the use of the contracts “haphazard”. However, Lancaster University believe that zero-hours contracts are beneficial to postgraduate students and to other kinds of staff where it is difficult to predict exactly how much they will be needed to work.

UCU say they have no issue with these contracts being used when visiting lecturers teach at a university infrequently. However, they do not think the contracts should be used by universities, such as Lancaster, for regular employment. This is due to employees being uncertain of what their earnings will be over a given period.

It is unclear at this point if any change will be made to the policy of using flexible hours contracts at Lancaster. This is due to negotiations between UCU and higher education employers breaking down over the proposed 1% pay increase, resulting in the recent strike action.

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