University zero hours contracts rise despite pledge to end exploitation

Almost half of Scotland’s universities increased the number of staff they employed on zero hours contracts over the last year.

In 2015, Scottish university principals publicly committed to “eliminate exploitative zero hours contracts” and tackle abuses linked to them.

But an investigation by the Ferret – published in tandem today with The National – has revealed that zero hours contracts have increased in many universities with junior academics often working a number of short-term contracts simultaneously.

“If I’m lucky with my four different roles I get max £400 a month,” said one final year PhD student at Glasgow University. “You need all these jobs just to try to keep yourself afloat.”

In March 2015, the Universities and College Union called on Scottish institutions to improve their working conditions. In response, Universities Scotland wrote to the Scottish Government promising to eliminate ‘exploitative’ zero hours contracts.

But the number of staff employed with no guarantee of work increased in half a dozen Scottish universities over the last year, a series of Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Ferret has found.

Trade unions have called on the Scottish Government to put pressure on universities to end zero hours contracts.

At Strathclyde University the number of staff on zero hours contracts increased from 768 to 790 between 2013/14 and 2014/15. Staff on zero hours contracts at the university worked over 78,000 hours last year.

During the same time period, the number of hours worked by staff on zero hours contracts at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow, increased by almost 3,000 hours, to 34,530 hours.

Last year, Napier University had 256 zero hour lecturers working almost 35,000 hours, a slight increase on the previous year. At Aberdeen University the number of staff on zero hours contracts increased from 125 to 159 between 2013/14 and 2014/15, while at Stirling University teaching assistants on zero hours contracts rose from 291 to 304.

At Glasgow University, the number of staff on zero hours contracts dropped slightly between 2014 and 2015 but over 4,000 were still employed on these contracts last year, working over 215,000 hours in total.

Zero hours contracts have become increasingly prevalent in the university sector across the UK in recent years. Many of those employed in this way are young researchers finishing their studies or junior staff who previously would have been given full-time contracts but are now more often paid hourly lecturing rates.

Universities Scotland, the body that represents Scottish universities, has said that zero hours contracts offer flexibility to staff. But young academics we spoke to said they often feel pressurized to take insecure, short-term contracts with little or no guaranteed work.

“You are always told you need to teach to get a job once you finish your PhD but the pay is so bad only people who don’t need the money can really afford to do it. You can’t rely on it to pay your bills,” said a Glasgow university tutor who asked not to be named.

“Everybody is on these things. It’s frustrating because you are supposed to build up teaching work but that’s impossible if you want a regular salary.”

According to her contract, which the Ferret has seen, she earns over £28,000 a year pro rata but is paid an hourly rate so only makes just a fraction of that.

“In January I earned just £30,” she says. “I would love to know roughly what I’m going to earn a month but I don’t.”

The academic worked on a zero hours contract for three years from 2012. In September 2015, she was moved onto a new contract with guaranteed hours – just 40 hours over six months.

“When you go to the training they say “you can have as much work as you want’ but that doesn’t materialise.”

A 2014 report into zero hours contracts in Scottish universities found that staff who speak out against the arrangements can find their hours withdrawn or suffer bullying and harassment. Little appears to have changed.

“Because everyone is working like this you can’t complain about anything ever. If you complain you don’t get any more work.”

Scottish university principals are paid as much as £334,000 a year. In 2015, Scottish universities principals said that “exploitative” zero hours contracts should end.

In a letter sent to the Scottish Government the body said that “principals agreed to eliminate exploitative zero hours contracts in the sector with no use of exclusivity clauses and consideration given to how we can move to different contractual arrangements including appointments that offer a minimum hours guarantee in a given period.” But, the letter added, “responsible use of ‘hours required’ contracts will continue in higher education as they can provide both practical and mutual benefit to employer and employee.”

Responding to the Ferret investigation, a Universities Scotland spokesperson said:

“There are many instances where flexible employment arrangements are appropriate and benefit employees. Scotland’s higher education institutions make use of flexible contracts but are committed to avoiding exploitative practices. Staff on flexible contracts are entitled to holiday pay, sick pay and other benefits and there is no use of exclusivity clauses.

“Higher education institutions have been working with recognised trade unions on a joint project to better understand the use of flexible or casual contracts within the sector so that we have a shared evidence base. This is a constructive way to work together on this issue.”


But trade unions said universities needed to do more to end the use of zero hours contracts.

“These figures show a concerning rise in the use of zero hours contracts at some of Scotland’s leading institutions,” said Mary Senior of UCU Scotland Official.

“These contracts are bad for staff and students alike, as they offer no job security and mean that staff are often not paid for time spent on lesson preparation and marking. It is time for Scotland’s universities to make a firm commitment to eradicate these precarious contracts and employ people properly.”

A 2014 Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry found that over 100,000 Scots are employed on zero hours contracts. The STUC is currently running a campaign called ‘Better than Zero’ targeting companies that use zero-hours contracts.

STUC deputy secretary general Dave Moxham called on the Scottish government to put pressure on universities to end zero hours contracts.

“It is shocking that institutions funded by the public purse continue to operate zero hours contracts and that the figures seem to be on the increase, bucking the trend of a slight reduction in Scotland overall.  We recognise the independent status of universities, but this does not preclude pressure being brought to bear by the Scottish Government for an end to these practices and it should be a key priority for the new Government to do so.

“The fact that there are clear difference in the volume of zero hours contracts between different institutions gives the lie to the idea that such contracts are necessary to the business model of universities and they are certainly opposed by the majority of those working under these conditions.”

The Ferret investigation found that the numbers of staff employed on zero hours contracts have declined at Abertay, Glasgow School of Art, and the University of the West of Scotland.

Dundee University has 60 people recorded in its HR system as undertaking tutoring or marking for the university on professional distance-learning programmes, who do not have a minimum number of hours within their contracts.

There were no staff working on zero hours contracts in 2014/15 in Edinburgh, Heriot Watt and St Andrews universities. Just a single person was employed on such a contract at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

Earlier this year it was reported that Scottish principals received major salary increases in 2014/15 – despite universities having to cut £30million from their budgets.

University leaders have previously been criticised for earning more than the First Minister. Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University, in Glasgow, remains the highest paid principal in Scotland with a salary package of £343,000.

1 comment
  1. Dear Ferret, as a lecturer, co-president of UCU trade union on my campus and a supervisor of PhD students who have to negotiate contracts in their first posts, I am delighted you have highlighted this appalling issue in our universities. As you mention the Lecturers Trade Union UCU is taking direct action about this issue. I notice that you do not mention Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh where the joint trade Unions worked closely with HR and have now banned all zero hours contracts. We still of course have some short term contracts and a particular concern is TUPE’d out workers so we cannot say casualisation has completely disappeared. However we do think it is important to highlight that in one Scottish University Trade Unions have been successful in banning these contracts.

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