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Something for nothing

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Zero-hours contracts are rife in higher education and research – with most universities using them…

With Scottish universities among the highest users of zero-hours contracts, it is fitting that the University and College Union (UCU) should hold its annual congress this May in Glasgow. Casualisation and the associated attack on professionalism in the further and higher education sector are now endemic, with widespread use of zero-hours contracts.

Few students appreciate that their courses are often being taught by staff earning less than the minimum wage, as those lecturers are frequently not paid for the preparation, marking and administration involved. British universities produce world-class research but few are aware that many of the researchers are also on these same contracts.

Zero-hours contracts do not guarantee a minimum number of hours, and mean that staff cannot budget to meet bills or plan for a future. Typically they mean a lecturer is only paid for the direct teaching time with students. Hours can suddenly be withdrawn with no pay, for example if a course is cancelled, even if the staff member has prepared the teaching.

In 2013 the UCU used a Freedom of Information request to reveal the extent of zero-hours contracts. This revealed that 52 per cent of British institutions used them, and this rose to 79 per cent of Scottish institutions – with the University of Edinburgh employing more people on these contracts than any other university in the country.

Even the Scottish Affairs Select Committee expressed alarm at how much zero-hours contracts were used by Scotland's higher education sector. It said that in some cases universities were being kept going by staff who earn less than the minimum wage and described the situation as one of “unashamed exploitation”.

ʻSome universities are kept going by staff who earn less than the minimum wage.ʼ

Since 2013 the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have committed to work with the UCU to end zero-hours contracts and some progress has been made. Mary Senior, UCU Scotland official, said: “The widespread use of zero-hours contracts in Scottish universities continues to be an embarrassment. But the fact that our largest universities can commit to working with us to address the problem, shows that better workforce planning without zero-hours contracts is possible.”

When UCU exposed the extent of these contracts in 2013 no clear pattern emerged about their use. It concluded that employers used such contracts to avoid their legislative responsibilities, aiming also to create a compliant workforce.

One trend is clear: where workers expose their use and the employer’s tactics, employers do change their stance. They know that the league of shame of who uses zero-hours contracts is a “reputational risk”. So the onus is on trade unions to highlight that risk and negotiate for staff to move to permanent contracts – and not fixed-term contracts which is the other trick employers will try on.