Six women are suing the Open University under sex discrimination and European law in a test case which could have important financial implications for the university system. Their case, which could spell the beginning of the end of waiver clauses denying employees redundancy and unfair dismissal rights, hinges on their position as contract workers.
Supported by the Association of University Teachers (AUT), the women are claiming indirect discrimination on the grounds that the OU employs proportionately more women than men on fixed-term contracts. They were required to sign a waiver clause. Therefore they did not enjoy the same rights under employment law as men. The OU declined comment because of the pending tribunal case except to say that it tries to avoid unnecessary employment of casuals.
The case, which is being watched closely by university employers, comes amid increasing anxiety about the casualisation of the academic workforce. Critics argue that it lowers morale, harms students and causes people to leave at the first opportunity.
For example, Ayari Prieto, 45, who has worked in Nottingham University's continuing education department for more than six years preparing learning materials and organising courses, has decided to get out. After four contracts, three lasting one year and one lasting three years, she is quitting to work with a telecommunications company for double the money. There were no promotion prospects at Nottingham and no chance of a permanent job.
"As a result of my situation I had a very low opinion of my ability and potential. But I decided to spend my pounds 2,000 worth of savings on a career adviser. He has turned everything around for me. I feel as though I am coming out of a cave."
Other casuals decide to soldier on. Natasha Hodson, 53, has worked in continuing education at City University in London for the past eight years. Paid by the hour, she earns around pounds 7,000 a year. "One of the injustices I feel is that we don't get any holidays or pension or length of service increments," she says. "One of the main reasons I have stayed is that I like the atmosphere and my colleagues."
It is because of people like Ms Hodson that the AUT has launched a campaign with the aim of ending waiver clauses and drastically reducing the number of casuals employed. It is drawing up a draft model agreement covering fixed-term, temporary, part-time and casual appointments.
Latest figures commissioned from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by the union show that 49 per cent of female and 37 per cent of male academic staff are on fixed-term contracts - and the numbers are increasing year by year. Some institutions no longer put new staff on to permanent contracts, says AUT president Penny Holloway.
In an attempt to regulate the employment jungle, vice chancellors joined with the research councils and other research bodies two years ago to sign a "concordat" setting out good practice for contract research staff. It said employees should be entitled to maternity benefit, appraisal and career guidance and be considered part of the institution they were working in. But the AUT has found the concordat to be more honoured in the breach than the observance.
The results of a survey of 1,600 fixed-term staff show that just over one-half (51 per cent) had not heard of the concordat. More than three- quarters (79 per cent) did not know whether the concordat had been discussed locally. Almost one third (29 per cent) had had no appraisal and two-thirds had had no career guidance. Asked whether they had the same rights as permanent staff to departmental meetings, 17 per cent said no. And as many as 30 per cent said they didn't feel they shared equally in the life of the department.
Tom Wilson, the union's assistant general secretary, says: "There's a willingness to do something about the problem at the top level in universities, say, at the vice chancellor and pro vice chancellor level, but the message isn't getting down to heads of department. Therefore we think the research councils should begin to show their teeth and tell institutions that, if they don't comply with the concordat, they won't get their funding."
Waiver clauses were not banned by the concordat. But two universities have recently dropped waivers. One is Leeds, which took action after researchers refused to sign contracts; another is Heriot Watt in Scotland.
It is not only researchers, however, who are employed on short-term contracts. More and more university teaching is being done not by the traditional full-time professor or lecturers but by hourly-paid employees - by postgraduate students and by academics who can't find permanent posts. Christopher Husbands, reader in sociology at the London School of Economics, has tried to put a figure on the number of part-time teaching auxiliaries. He reckons it is 60,000, based on a telephone survey of personnel officers at 30 institutions - and the number is climbing steadily.
It's a serious problem, he believes. Reports from the former Higher Education Quality Council and the teaching assessment arm of the higher education funding council, point up concern about its effect on quality and career development. "There's an issue about morale," he says. "People who are having to piece together a living by undertaking three part-time jobs in different universities in the hope that they may qualify one day for an academic job suffer, and eventually find it depressing."
Dr Husbands says his own research provides some evidence - from assessments by students - that the performance of casual staff in the humanities deteriorates over time. Students complain, for example, of problems with audibility and the ability of casual staff to speak English.
For other academics, however, employing graduate students to teach first and second years has positive benefits. Some departments do it to release star academics for research. That, in turn, enables them to do better in the research assessment exercise and attract more research money to their institution. Professor Christopher Hood, convenor of the London School of Economics' department of government, which employs large numbers of postgraduates to teach students, says that many of the postgraduates make good teachers and receive student assessments on a par with full- time academics.
"We think they do a good job," he adds. "We don't think we're skimping on quality. In fact the reverse. Moreover, you get synergy between the two groups. The graduate students need to get teaching experience as well as keep body and soul together while they do research. At the same time, they provide benefits to the undergraduates."
Professor Gareth Williams, of the Institute of Education at London University, thinks, however, that the way universities treat casuals is "scandalous" and is the result of their "ludicrous" hiring practices. Permanent staff are almost impossible to remove and universities are strapped for money, so they end up recruiting casuals because they are cheap, he says. Short- term contracts were always one route into academic jobs, but that route has now dried up. The result is there are now people in their forties with teenage children still scratching a living as contract researchers.
"It's like acting, where people are willing to put up with hell in the hope they may one day be a star," he says. "Researchers used to have a reasonable chance of getting a job, but they don't any longer."
Pressure is mounting for universities to reform their employment practices. Even if the Government decides not to propose abolition of waiver clauses in its White Paper on Fairness at Work, the AUT will not let up and pressure from Europe is all in the direction of giving part-timers the same rights as full-time staff. The big issue for higher education is how it will pay for such reform.
'Some days I wish I had a nine to five job'
A novel kind of gypsy scholar is criss-crossing the nation. Michael Evans, 30, is one of the new breed of itinerant academics on the American model who stitch together a living working for a number of universities. A medieval historian, with a first-class degree from Reading University and a PhD paid for with taxpayers' money from the British Academy, he is unable to find a permanent job.
Last term he was working part time for four institutions - the universities of Birmingham, Sheffield and Leicester, and the Open University - teaching history to first-year undergraduates. "I live in Nottingham," he explains. "This term I'm teaching at three universities. I go to Birmingham one day a week, to Sheffield one day, and the OU work is mainly by correspondence."
He had thought a PhD would qualify him to work in academe. But it has proved impossible to find a job. Positions in medieval history are thin on the ground. The last job going was at Aberystwyth last May.
Paid by the hour, Mr Evans earns pounds 130 to pounds 140 a week plus travel expenses, and is able to claim housing benefit as a low wage-earner. He hops about to his jobs by train. "I don't know how long I can go on like this," he says. "Some days I think `Why on earth am I doing this? I would like to have a nine-to-five job.' It's really hard work maintaining it. I can't see myself doing it in the long term. I'm hoping that by building things up I will be able to get permanent work."
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