Top UK universities belonging to the Russell Group have been accused of incorporating the ‘Sports Direct model’ into their institutions, after the Guardian found that some of the richest institutions are employing staff on zero-hour or hourly-paid contracts.

With 24 ‘world-class’ universities in its portfolio, including the University of Oxford and Imperial College London, the Russell Group has a total economic output of around £32billion every year as well as a workforce of over 300,000 in the UK.

Deana Bates, solicitor in Employment Law at Simpson Millar, explores why employing staff on a casual basis isn’t always good for business.  

Exploiting the workforces

Zero-hour contracts. Temp agencies. It seems to be the same story this year, with more and more employers offering workers insecure employment rather than permanent contracts. Sports Direct was the first major employer to come under heavy scrutiny after being exposed for its exploitation of casual workers – especially its use of zero-hour contracts.

Trade unionists fear that this way of working has now filtered into other sectors such as higher education.

The rise of the zero-hours contract

Lecturers and academics typically spend a large majority of their careers gaining qualifications or doctorates, but figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) have shown that an astounding 53% of them have been found to be surviving on non-permanent contracts.

Around three quarters of junior academics were found to be on these types of contracts, which can range from short-term to hourly-paid contracts that involve staff delivering lectures or marking exam papers or essays.

HESA’s figures also show that:

  • Over 50% of staff at 13 out of 24 of the Russell Group’s institutions are currently on insecure contracts
  • 70% of staff at the University of Birmingham are currently on zero-hours or flexible contracts, closely followed by 68% of staff at the University of Warwick
  • The University of Cambridge was found to have the least staff on non-permanent contracts – 13.4%

As competition in the higher education sector is becoming more intense, more universities are looking at adapting their business models in spite of the fact that many of their staff are finding it tough to make ends meet.

This appears to exclude those at the top, such as the vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham who took home a pay packet of £416,000 last year – almost 3 times the prime minister’s salary.

Although 1-year and 2-year contracts are the norm for research funded by grants, HESA’s figures show that zero-hour contracts are now commonplace for those who are teaching undergraduates.

“I earn such a pathetic amount. I feel quite humiliated.”

Academics aren’t usually very vocal about their working arrangements, but some who believed that they have “nothing left to lose” chose to share their experiences with the Guardian:

  • A 44-year-old politics lecturer revealed that he earns a miserable £6,000 a year, despite the fact that he works for 3 different institutions. He’s forced to rely on benefits in order to survive.
  • A 32-year-old linguistics lecturer who has had serious mental health problems admitted that “unstable work without a network of colleagues and without any security is proving really difficult.”
  • A 49-year-old English lecturer gravely commented that “I earn such a pathetic amount. I feel quite humiliated.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), described staff on insecure contracts as “a reserve army of precarious and exploited labour.

“Many universities are hacking up teaching jobs into even smaller bits and shoving people on to the worst contract they can get away with.”

At some universities, such as the University of Edinburgh, the controversy caused by zero-hour contracts has led to managers promising to get rid of them. But, the figures seem to tell a different story and show that the university has instead put some of its workers onto other types of insecure contracts.

For the Universities and Colleges Association, it’s important for universities to “retain the ability to operate with part of their workforce in a flexible mode to enable them to respond to changes in demand.”

The conditions that academics work under will be part of an independent review of workers’ rights that will be undertaken for the government, according to the Department for Business.

Deana comments:

“Employers need to remember that if they don’t show commitment to their staff, it’s likely that this attitude will be reciprocated by their staff who might not be dedicated to their jobs and students – who will end up paying the ultimate price.”

“Universities – and employers in general – should remember that their workforces are a crucial part of their success. Staff working on casual contracts are less likely to stick with their employers, especially if they can find stable employment elsewhere. The instability of the employment opportunities currently on offer could really place the students’ education in jeopardy, which isn’t fair when you consider the amount of money they’re expected to pay for courses.”

“In situations like this, it’s wise for employers to review the type of contracts they’re offering and think about whether they’re beneficial for their staff as well as their business, or whether they could offer a more solid arrangement for both.”