Zero-Hours Academics

Harry Stopes

More than half the academic staff at London Metropolitan University – around 840 people – are on zero-hours contracts. Their hours of employment vary from term to term or year to year. Most earn nothing during the university holidays. They do the same work as permanent staff but have no job security, minimal prospect of advancement and inferior benefits. Many are teaching courses that they designed: their work is not incidental or unskilled. They can be fired at a month's notice. Many have been in this position for years.

The local branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) held a protest outside one of London Met's buildings on Holloway Road last Tuesday. Christina Paine, a UCU representative, told the crowd that hourly-paid staff do 'essential work for the university, but they're treated like McDonald's workers'. Rather like a McDonald's manager describing his sixth-form workforce, the university says that many members of staff 'welcome the flexibility hourly-paid contracts provide'. If this were true it would have nothing to lose by offering them full-time, permanent contracts. A spokesman added that there's no reason to single out the Met: 'Lots of universities use zero-hours contracts,' he said. 'I hope you'll write that.'

He's right. According to figures obtained by the UCU from 142 universities last year, more than 24,000 employees are on zero-hours contracts. Almost half the universities that responded employed more than 200 staff on zero-hours. London Met didn't respond to the survey, but the figure of 840 would make it the eighth largest zero-hours employer among UK universities. (Edinburgh, which employed 2712 staff on zero-hours in 2013, has since announced it intends to end the practice.)

The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA) prefers not to focus on zero-hours, but instead talks about ‘atypical’ working. Atypical workers include professionals from outside academia who contribute occasional teaching on specialist courses, postgraduate students fitting a small teaching commitment around their studies, or researchers recruited for specific, time-limited projects. When considering such staff, the UCEA argues, the total headcount is misleading – if their contribution is appropriately weighted, they make up only 3.7 per cent of the full-time equivalent of academic staff. According to London Met, casualisation in higher education isn't a problem because everybody does it; according to the UCEA, it isn't a problem because it isn't really happening.

But the 3.7 per cent figure doesn't reflect the importance of casual staff (on various kinds of contract) to teaching. And a calculation based on the number of hours reported by the universities is unlikely to be a true reflection of the work that casual staff do. All hourly-paid teaching positions pay for time spent with students, but whether they pay enough for the extra hours of preparation, administration and marking depends on the university or department. I mark essays for courses at both UCL and King's College London, and can't do it in the time specified in my job description. I either have to do my job inadequately or work unpaid overtime. A survey of teaching assistants and postdoctoral teaching fellows at SOAS earlier this year found that staff were only paid for around half the work they do. Their effective hourly rate was less than the London living wage.

UCU has a national anti-casualisation campaign, but it has received few resources and little attention from the national executive. The centrepiece of a recent UCU 'day of action' on casualisation consisted of getting members to write to their MP. The union has tended to protect the profession by protecting the pay and conditions of its most secure members. But that security is undermined by the reshaping of the profession at the margins – which are moving ever closer to the centre. If the Union wants to win or retain the trust and loyalty of precarious, mostly younger members it needs to listen to them. According to Robert Murthwaite, a law lecturer at London Met, 'change is coming, and it's coming from below.'


  • 18 November 2014 at 9:22am
    Phil Edwards says:
    I worked for my previous employer as an hourly-paid lecturer - paid for the teaching I did, no more and no less (although they did pay extra for marking, which was very welcome). The term 'zero hours' wasn't widely used at the time, and I only made the connection years later. In fact it only struck me how very precarious my position was towards the end of my time there, when I was talking to my union rep about the employer's (putative) obligations under legislation on fixed-term contracts: the rep told me, quite cheerfully, that if I stood up for my rights I would have a very good chance of securing a permanent contract as an hourly-paid lecturer.


    Mind you, in every respect apart from the lack of money and security it was a great job, so there was that.

    • 18 November 2014 at 10:25am
      Harry Stopes says: @ Phil Edwards
      Thanks Phil.The legislation on fixed-term contracts is an interesting point. I didn't have space to talk about it in the blog, but London Met used to employ a lot of fixed-term lecturers, until the Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Unfair Terms) Regulations came in in 2002. Basically these specified that anyone doing the same job for four years or more on a series of fixed term contracts had the right to be transferred on to a permanent contract. So, just before the four year deadline came up in 2006, the Met shifted all their fixed term staff on to zero hours contracts. These zero hours contracts are, of course "permanent" thus getting round the legislation, but offer no guaranteed hours and are no improvement.

  • 18 November 2014 at 1:28pm
    suetonius says:
    I'm an academic in the States, and this is a massive issue here now. We call them adjuncts, but it's the same deal. They get paid by the course, not much usually. I'm at a State University, so we actually pay them pretty well, it's about $3,500 - $4500 per course, depending on how much it meets. So if you want to make a living at it (which more and more people are trying to do, since it's very hard to get full time academic work), you need to teach at least 6 courses, which means you are at 3 or 4 schools. Back when I started more than 20 years ago, this was much less of an issue. We actually felt we had it much better than Europe, where as I remember it most academics were on one year contracts, it was only the privileged few who had what most of us had here - lifetime employment. Now a large proportion of courses are taught by part time faculty, even at plenty of very upscale places. In my department (math), it's way more than half.

  • 20 November 2014 at 2:35pm
    The Shacklewell Enquirer says:
    If what Harry calls zero-hours contracts in universities are in fact permanent contracts, as he says, then what he calls "permanent staff" are better described as full-timers or fractional academics?

    Well, contrary to what Harry suggests, hourly paid lecturers don't do the same work as full-timers and fractionals. They don't do the same amount of administration (meetings; lists; pastoral; emails; quality; discipline; review; curriculum; syllabus; timetable; scheduling; logs; NSS; student experience; Standards Board; examining; resits; progression; admissions; clearing; interviews; extra-curricular; virtual learning environment design and content management).

    How much academic research do hourly-paid lecturers do for a university? None, as far as I know.

    Hourly-paid lecturers teach. Hourly-paid lecturers also perform duties directly related to that teaching. So they prepare for teaching, they teach and they assess. A few may be asked to take part in some of the administrative tasks outlined above, but it's a small minority.

    On naming, it's convenient politically to elide meanings for rhetorical purposes. Currently, 'zero-hours' is a term usefully charged for a national politician. However, it's not clear how an hourly-paid lecturer at a university can ever have 'zero hours' in the way a McDonalds worker might. That's because an hourly-paid lecturer's hours are allocated for an academic session, which is always much longer (several months) than a McDonalds worker's shift (days) will ever be. So the flexibility such a contract affords a university does not equal the flexibility such a contract affords McDonalds. I imagine that McDonalds may have quite a few hourly-paids with zero hours in one shift among several weeks, whereas universities are unlikely to have hourly-paids with zero hours in one session among several years.

    My guess is that far from flexibility being the reason for these contracts, London Metropolitan University just can't afford to convert hourly-paid contracts into full-time or fractional contracts, or they might have done so years ago. If 2006 was the year that university moved from fixed-term to these contracts, then wasn't 2006 also the year the university got into deep financial trouble which it then had to spend 7 years digging itself out of?

    • 21 November 2014 at 4:18pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ The Shacklewell Enquirer
      Let me respond to your comments in order.
      1) Zero hours contracts at London Met are indeed 'permanent' in the sense that they have no end point - they're not fixed term. That is (one of) their advantages to the university in the context of the 2002 legislation. They are not permanent in a different sense, in that, long term, no pay is guaranteed.

      You are right to note that at other points in the article I use 'permanent' to refer to full time (or fraction of full time) staff who are paid an annual salary. Feel free to re-read the article substituting the appropriate terminology.

      2) As I stated in my article, many HPLs at London Met (and elsewhere for that matter) are designing and leading courses. This means that they have the same responsibilities as a full-time member of staff has with reference to his or her teaching. This includes many of the responsibilities you list, especially meetings, lists, pastoral, discipline, curriculum, syllabus, examining, VLE design and management. Some of the other responsibilities you list are just odd. You don't think HPLs have to answer emails? Even GTAs have to answer student emails.

      Anyway, just because HPLs are recruited specifically for teaching only does not mean that they should therefore be in a permanently insecure position.

      3) Your remarks about overall responsibilities are largely answered above, but I'd add as an aside that research work is showing the beginnings of being casualised too. In fact, the Centre on Migration Policy and Society at Oxford recently advertised for five "Casual Researchers."

      These researchers would be paid £12.32 an hour to identify, recruit and interview migrants for a research project. The successful applicant must possess sixteen essential characteristics, including foreign language proficiency, experience in migration research and knowledge of specialist IT software. A large research project that might in the past have been given to a full time postdoctoral research fellow is instead broken up into parts which are subcontracted to precarious researchers desperately seeking entry to the shrinking pool of the tenured. The research data produced will belong to the senior academic commissioning the project: he gets the research publication that comes out of it and keeps the job that depends on it. (Such a Taylorisation of research has long been a feature of the sciences.)

      4) Sorry, but the fact is that a contract which guarantees no hours, or includes a "hours to be specified" clause, is by definition a zero hours contract. If that makes those contracts a hard sell for universities that want to use them, that's just tough.

      While it is indeed true that HPL work doesn't vary day by day or week by week like it does in retail, it is not true that hours are confirmed months in advance. The notice period for HPL hours at London Met is 30 days, and staff there that I spoke to told me they often don't even get that. One lecturer told me last week that she didn't get confirmation of her hours for this term until the term was already two weeks underway.

      As for your point about flexibility, thanks for sharing your guess with us. However, in a written response to my questions for this article, with reference to 'atypical' working the UCEA said that "HE employers aim to achieve appropriate flexibility in the workforce".

    • 26 November 2014 at 9:43am
      The Shacklewell Enquirer says: @ Harry Stopes
      Let me comment on your responses in order.

      1) Let's just not use 'permanent' at all, it confuses.

      2) "...As I stated in my article, many HPLs at London Met (and elsewhere for that matter) are designing and leading courses..."

      I think that in common with many, you are probably underestimating London Met.

      If you've done your research, then without naming anyone, exactly how many of their degree courses (undergraduate or postgraduate) at London Met are designed and/or led by any one of the 840 hourly-paid lecturers you cite (short courses and lesson plans don't count)?

      Is the answer in fact zero? If not, just how close does it get to 'many'? So ask yourself who gave you that dud information and why?

      Also, you changed my words and in doing so revealed some inexperience. I listed a fulltimer/fractional's tasks in administration, not responsibilities. No patronisation intended, but if you stay in academia, you'll certainly come to know the difference. Email isn't just email to students and admin isn't only related to tuition. There is much more academic admin outside tuition than in it. I assure you that hourly-paids don't have the same amount of administration as full-timers and fractionals.

      3) "...Research work is showing the beginnings of being casualised too..." Your example elides two different aspects of research. £12.32 will just be the local going rate for 'market' researchers with those essential characteristics. The suggestion that any full time postdoctoral research fellow might ever have been appointed to do the work of 5 casuals on a research project has no grounds. Casual work for a research project in different languages is nothing new - I did the same myself after graduating 30 years ago along with many others.

      4) If the notice period for HPL hours at London Met is 30 days and some staff don’t even get that, then London Met must just try harder. Of course, the determining factor is unlikely to be any notice period at all, but only ever the very poor timing of a university's budgetary year. When does London Met's start? Is it (like many universities) useful for academic year planning, but at the latest possible time for deciding an academic work allocation (Sep 1 - too close to the beginning of a first term for the 30 days and right at the end of a fallow summer period in which much leave is hastily grabbed and thus too few are around to confirm decisions)?

      It's clear that flexibility is the battleground here, and that a new, hedged flexibility will now be negotiated under the national spotlight, but that this is unlikely to end in any employees being given a fulltime/fractional contract involving tuition/administration and research.

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