The part-time lecturer who hit back

Susan Birch was teaching many more hours for much less pay than full-time lecturer colleagues. Then, she took Leeds Metropolitan to an employment tribunal. Lucy Hodges reports on a landmark case
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Susan Birch was pleased to land a job with Leeds Metropolitan University when she returned to Britain after 22 years of teaching English abroad. The weather might be colder and wetter in Yorkshire than in Oman but, as the main breadwinner in the family at the time, with children of eight and 10, she needed work.

That was seven-and-a-half years ago. Birch was employed as a part-time lecturer teaching English as a foreign language, a job for which she was more than adequately qualified - she had been teaching English for the whole of her adult life, mainly abroad for the British Council, in Athens, Brussels and, finally, in Oman. So she had plenty of experience.

Moreover, in that last job, she had been the assistant director of studies at the British Council in Muscat, the capital of Oman.

Initially, in 1998, she was given a temporary summer job at Leeds Met, but after a couple of weeks that turned into a part-time lecturer contract. Under this, she was guaranteed 50 hours of teaching a year. That was not enough to give her a decent income, so she had to arrange to work many extra hours teaching English at the university on top of the contracted hours in order to keep her family fed and clothed.

After two years, she asked the university to increase the number of hours she was contracted to teach to 250 a year. Later, that number was increased again, to 500 a year. "All the time I was having to teach many, many more hours to earn a halfway decent salary," she says.

That was because the hourly rate paid to part-time lecturers is lower than the full-time rate, even though it is supposed to cover time spent preparing lessons and marking students' papers. A full-time lecturer is contracted to teach a maximum of 550 hours a year. Birch was having to teach more than that - and was paid a lot less for her labours.

In the 2004-05 academic year, for example, she taught 705 hours. Her pay was £24,000. Two of her full-time colleagues at the university teaching the 550 hours required of them were earning £34,258. "It was not fair," she says. "I was doing the same work as my full-time colleagues yet I was having to teach longer hours and was ending up £10,000 worse off."

She did not receive the annual increments her full-time colleagues got, nor was she paid for bank holidays, as they were. January and February were always difficult for the family, she says, because they followed the Christmas period when she earned very little. And she was not paid for attending meetings or training sessions for PowerPoint and new language labs.

The stress of the workload took its toll. Because Birch was teaching so many hours, sometimes she would have to drive to work, from a village beyond Harrogate to Leeds, which took 45 minutes to an hour, drive back to collect her children from school at 3.30pm, and then return to the university to teach in the evening. She remembers arriving home exhausted at 10pm every evening over a two-month period and spending three hours preparing for the next day because there was no material for a business course that she had been told was the most prestigious in the department.

Her most arduous period was in 1999-2000, when she was asked to work on a teacher-training course. "During that time, the course leader went on six months' sick leave and two other teachers took a sabbatical to finish their Masters degrees," she says. "I was left, suddenly, running the course on my own, teaching on it, dealing with the administration and having to beg other colleagues to come and teach on it."

Birch had constant money worries and was anxious about the effect her long absences at work were having on her children. She was forced to remortgage her home four times and was persuaded to see a counsellor about the stress. She broke out in an eczema-like rash for the first time in her life, because of the stress, she thinks. And her weight ballooned.

Finally Birch, who is now 52, had enough and referred the matter to her union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe), which has been campaigning for years to end what it sees as the abuse of hourly-paid teachers. They filed a lawsuit claiming that Birch was receiving less favourable treatment than her full-time colleagues and that this contravened the regulations introduced by the Government to implement the European Part-Time Work Directive.

When the case came before an employment tribunal, it was for a preliminary hearing to decide whether Birch was engaged in similar work to her full-time colleagues - a critical issue. The tribunal decided she was. After that, the university made it clear it wanted to settle. It was in Birch's interests to settle because, if the tribunal found against the university on the issue of whether or not it had treated her less favourably, it would not be able to recommend that she be put on a full-time contract. Birch won £25,000 in compensation, £2,000 towards the cost of a Masters degree and a full-time contract as a senior lecturer.

This is the first time the part-time work regulations have been used in the UK by a member of the teaching profession to challenge their pay and conditions. And, according to Natfhe, it is the biggest sum ever paid to a part-time employee in settlement of a claim under these regulations. It has the potential to affect the pay and conditions of thousands of part-time higher education teachers in Britain, and possibly those of the postgraduates employed to teach at the old universities.

"For higher education, it is a test case," says Andy Pike, Natfhe's national officer for higher education. "Employers can no longer hide behind the excuse that they are paying part-timers less to do a restricted range of duties. The judgment indicates that time is up on this form of contract. The idea of keeping a pool of teachers as flexible labour to be sacrificed at reduced cost when an institution wants to make changes is about to end."

Natfhe's general secretary, Paul Mackney, says: "I hope this settlement awakens employers to their responsibility to move to fractional contracts and civilised working practices."

But there is worry among part-timers that universities might decide to lay off such lecturers rather than put them on a similar footing to full-timers. "This would be a drastic worst-case scenario," says Tom Wilson, head of the TUC's organisation and services department. "Universities are so reliant on part-timers that it would be unlikely to happen. Anyway, part-timers would still be cheaper if universities were to pay them on the same rate as their full-time colleagues."

Leeds Met issued a statement saying that it did not accept the settlement was a test case. "The tribunal did not reach a conclusion on the substance of the claim, and no decision was made that establishes a precedent or affects the position of part-time hourly paid staff generally within the university or elsewhere in the sector."

The matter is being dealt with by the university employers in the new national framework agreement establishing a single pay-spine for all employees. All staff are having their jobs evaluated and are to be paid equitably for the work they do. Natfhe is hoping that this will bring part-time workers in from the cold.

Why the numbers don't add up to a satisfying part-time teaching career

How many hourly paid teachers are there in higher education?

No one really knows. According to the Bett survey in 1999, there are 28,000. But Dr Colin Bryson, an expert at Nottingham Trent University, says you have to add 15,000 contract researchers who also teach and more than 15,000 postgraduates who teach part-time, plus others. The total is more like 70,000, a little less than the number on full-time contracts.

What do they earn?

Much less than full-timers. An hourly paid lecturer in a new university working similar hours to a full-timer, doing 550 hours a year, would earn £17,276 compared to the average full-timer's pay of £30,000. And 39 per cent of hourly paid lecturers described themselves as "very likely to resign" if an opportunity arose elsewhere.

Are most part-time teachers new members of staff?

No. Only 10 per cent of part-timers are in their first year of teaching, and 30 per cent have worked in that capacity for more than five years.

Source: Natfhe