Employers in the higher education sector are not alone in having made greater use of fixed-term, hourly paid and other forms of insecure contracts in a process that the UCU describes as the ‘casualisation’ of the tertiary education workforce. In its new publication Security Matters the UCU discusses the situation faced by such workers and charts the action the union is taking to secure rights for those facing uncertain futures in the sector.
Change in workforce
Changes in government policy, student numbers, trends in education and, in particular, higher education funding have led to a reorganisation of the higher education workforce and a dramatic rise in the number of people not offered open-ended contracts. According to estimates by the UCU, one third of all staff employed in the sector are on hourly-paid contracts, while 60% of colleges use zero-hour contracts for teaching.
Against this background, UCU has implemented a national strategy for tackling casualisation, keeping the issue in the media spotlight and lobbying MPs for support. As part of this drive, Security Matters promotes the work of the UCU in helping members with employment problems.
There are undoubted benefits to employing people on such contracts for a sector that has seen huge funding cuts and that has had to become increasingly commercial in the face of economic pressures and heightened competition. The flexibility of employing people on a non-permanent basis is an attractive proposition to institutions struggling with financial pressures and allows higher education providers to adapt to the rapid pace of change in the sector. But such contracts are no panacea. Fixed-term employees accrue statutory rights, including in certain circumstances the right to a permanent contract, which can wrong-foot employers who are not aware of the often complex legislation that protects many atypical workers. While some employees may welcome the flexibility afforded by such contracts, other will understandably be uncertain.
A series of recent cases show the dangers of failing to understand the legal implications of casualisation of the workforce, not least a successful 2015 legal challenge brought by UCU against the University of Stirling, in which the Supreme Court held that staff on fixed term contracts should have been included in the collective consultancy process for redundancies.
Clearly, decision-makers in higher education need to take care when dealing with atypical workers and carefully factor in the pitfalls as well as benefits that casual contracts can bring to the workforce.