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Zero-hour contracts shame British universities

Unfair working conditions are nothing new in academia. chancellorgriffin

Further and higher education institutions have a long and ignoble history of employing staff on zero-hour contracts, so figures released last week by the University and College Union come as no surprise to those on the inside.

Research published earlier this year showed 27% of companies in the UK employ staff on zero-hour contracts, through which staff agree to be available for work as and when required but are not guaranteed any minimum hours.

The figures from retail and the service industry were damming and now, having gathered information from 139 universities across the country, the UCU has found even murkier goings on up in our ivory towers.

Senior managers seeking what they call “flexibility” have long exploited young and old, women and men, black and white academics without fear or favour. All have fallen prey to their self-serving mantra of “more for less”.

While this started from the mixed traditions of the “gentleman” scholar and the career aspirations of the non-elite to break through the class ceiling, it has drifted since the mid-1990s into a wholesale abuse of the system. This is partly associated with the pernicious influence of the self-styled Russell Group leaders, desperate for the American way of life. These UK universities want the huge budgets, large salaries and expenses and global prestige enjoyed by universities across the Atlantic.

The trend has also been partly fuelled in the last few years by budget cuts, rewards for target hitting irrespective of actual value-added, and the fragmentation of the supply side of the industry into academy schools, foundation trusts, and stand alone FE colleges and universities rather than a single, integrated system.

The consequences are there for all who care to see: lower levels of teaching in ever-growing class sizes; narrower criteria for success; less-well-educated students; research driven by the fatally flawed Research Excellence Framework; and the casualisation of the workforce. The most recent UCU figures following on from the CIPD’s exposure of the million plus workers on zero hour contracts show the extent of this malpractice – 61% of FE colleges and 53% of universities that responded (the vast majority) use them. But this is clearly an understatement of their current usage, especially in teaching.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is quite clear that zero-hours contracts require the worker to be available for work at any time and usually, therefore, not available to work elsewhere. However, the worker is not required to accept the hours offered. It is clear that despite this official position, the realities are that if you refuse to do the work offered you will no longer be given the contract.

What’s more, most other surveys show that such workers do not receive their proper share of holiday and sick leave, of bonus payments, and of training. They also tend to be invisible to the HR departments and rarely use the grievance procedures, making them more vulnerable to bullying, stress, harassment and unreasonable demands on their time when at work.

Universities play a major role in our society, not only for those who work and study at them. They are part of what identifies us as a nation. These shoddy employment practices take the dignity out of work, erode the rights of all workers and students in the sector, and damage the reputation of the sector in the eyes of the wider public. For senior managers who constantly boast about their modern approach to the world, and who claim to represent the sector to government and the citizens, it is a lazy use of very old-fashioned employment practices to fail to address a long-standing weakness in the system.

At the heart of this lie policies designed by ministers and implemented by their representatives in the sector - the principals and vice-chancellors of the country’s universities - which seem to follow the worst practices from across the Atlantic. Their “I have a dream” speech is one of greater inequality, of business-facing research, and of self-serving rewards. They aspire to run institutions with a handful of senior managers and academics presiding over a large range of increasingly badly paid, unheard, insecure and overworked staff.

Zero-hours contracts generate a loss of professional dignity alongside a loss of voice for staff. Those that believe their use is an acceptable employment practice in the sixth richest country in the world are pursuing their short-term targets. They are on the fiddle while sector standards burn.

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