Universities accused of Sports Direct-style zero hours contracts

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Warwick University employs 68% of frontline staff on non-permanent contracts, says the UCU.

University academics are increasingly being forced to accept zero hours contracts, work through temping agencies and other forms of “precarious work”, according to analysis by the University and College Union (UCU) and an investigation by The Guardian.

Research carried out by the UCU, which represents lecturers, found that three-fifths of academics in the well-regarded Russell Group of universities are on fixed-term or other short contracts.

This has led UCU general-secretary Sally Hunt to accuse universities of Sports Direct-style recruitment and employment tactics.

She said: “For too long universities have relied on an army of insecure workers and our most elite institutions are the worst offenders. For thousands of staff precarious contracts are a grim reality where they don’t know if they’ll have a job next year or even what their income might be next month.

“Great teachers need great support to thrive, yet some of the world’s most respected universities are treating their staff little better than Sports Direct.”

Across British universities, on average just over half (53%) were on some form of non-permanent contract, ranging from nine-month contracts or lecturers paid by the hour to give classes or mark exams.

Junior academics were the worst hit, despite being those most likely to be doing frontline teaching. Three-quarters of them were on “precarious” contracts, the union said.

The findings have also prompted the National Union of Students to criticise the use of zero hours and fixed-term contracts for staff who are teaching students that have taken on high debts to continue their study.

Sorana Vieru, a vice-president at the NUS said: “When academic staff are demoralised and forced to cope with low pay and insecurity, the knock-on effect on students is significant.

“Many students are now taking on unprecedented levels of debt to go to university. They deserve good-quality teaching and anything that damages that is deeply unjust.”

The UCU’s research showed that within Russell Group universities, Birmingham (70%) and Warwick (68%) have the highest proportion of frontline teaching staff on short-term or zero hours arrangements.

Hunt added: “Universities can’t hide any longer on this issue. They need to make public the data that shows how much undergraduate teaching is undertaken by non-permanent staff and they need to work with us to create better jobs for their hard-working staff.”

Although universities are technically independent charities, The Guardian has learned that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will include them in its upcoming independent review of workers’ rights led by Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair.

The UCU compiled its research based on the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The University of Birmingham described the figures as “extremely misleading”, saying that staff on non-standard contracts accounted for just 7% of teaching.

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