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“Zero hours” contracts in Higher Education: the zero option…?

Mon, 15/10/2018 - 12:49

Five years ago, “zero hours” contracts came to the attention of the national media. While there is no one type of “zero hours” contract,  in all cases workers receive no guaranteed weekly hours or income. Workers are paid only for the actual hours worked, and the employer is under no obligation to provide any work. Their use by employers in very many sectors of the British economy has mushroomed in recent years. In 2006, possibly 0.5% of the workforce had “zero hours” contracts (130,000). According to the Labour Force Survey, 901,000 people (representing 2.8% of all workers) were on contracts that do not guarantee work in December 2017.

While some workers do favour the flexibility that some types of “zero hours” contracts offer them, there is no doubt that they bring the bosses’ far greater gains. In general, workers on “zero hours” contracts receive lower gross weekly pay. They work fewer hours on average than those on proper contracts and are more likely to want to work more hours. Workers on “zero hours” contracts tend to be younger and less likely to be educated beyond sixteen. Workplaces where “zero hours” contracts proliferate have higher proportions of workers on low pay, and of non-British nationals. They are used by bosses as a means of reducing wages and avoiding paying workers their legal entitlements in terms of holiday pay, enhanced sick pay, maternity pay, pensions, and other benefits and rights ordinarily enjoyed by workers on proper contracts such as provision of duties to avoid redundancy, redundancy payments and unfair dismissal claims. As their use has boomed, so have their more exploitative aspects. “Zero hours” contract workers have complained of, for example, being prevented from working for other employers; not being given sufficient notice of work being either available or being cancelled; not being offered work when there is work available and not having a real choice about accepting work (or fearing being given no more work if they turn some work down).

Though more prevalent in the private sector, parts of the public sector have increasingly adopted “zero hours” contracts. The use of “zero hours” contracts in the Education sector has grown by more than ten times since 2004. They are certainly now well established in Higher Education (HE). According to the University and College Union (UCU), in September 2018 46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero hours contracts. The specifics of which institutions are currently the worst offenders are impossible to determine as many simply refused to disclose their data on who is doing the teaching and on what terms and conditions.

While some institutions have tried, belatedly, to reduce or eliminate “zero hours” contracts in the light of the national outcry in 2013 (or at least they claimed to be doing so), the figures gained at that time by UCU make sobering reading. Half of HE institutions then used “zero hours” contracts, employing at least 25,000 workers in teaching, research or admin roles. The total number employed on “zero hours” contracts in any single institution varied from a handful to, in five cases, literally thousands of people. Almost 90% of these are employed to teach, and they constituted almost a half of all ‘teaching only’ staff, and 16% of all staff who do some teaching. “Zero hours” workers who were employed to teach or research constituted almost 13% of all academic staff. Many more (again, the numbers varied considerably between institutions) had “zero hours” contracts but were not given any work to actually do. Crucially, for all their apparent popularity with HE employers, now over half of HE institutions do not use them at all. This begs the question of why the rest have seen fit to travel –in some cases, it seems, very far– down the path of casualisation.

Those HE institutions that have embraced the casualisation option often use “zero hours” contracts of the “bank” type. This means that workers on them are part of a “bank” of individuals who the University can call on to deliver specific duties (teaching, for the most part).  But, as in the private sector, “bank” contracts offer employers a way of saving a lot of money. They allow universities to offer teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels that costs a small fraction of the equivalent teaching if done by a lecturer on a proper contract (either permanent or fixed term). Staff on “bank” contracts not only deliver support teaching -for example, running student seminars that are led by full-time staff members who deliver the lectures- they also devise and run their own modules, being responsible for delivering all lectures and associated seminars/tutorials, as well as essay marking and exam setting and marking. Essentially, they can do everything in terms of teaching that a full time-member of staff does but on a small fraction of the pay. As well as being cheaper, “bank” contract workers are much less ‘problematic’. European employment legislation entitles any worker on four successive years of short-term contracts to a permanent contract from that employer. The same counts for “bank” contracts; the only problem is that a “permanent” “bank” contract is worthless; the employer is under no obligation to offer any work under its terms.

“Bank” contract” staff are not, unlike their full-time colleagues, paid for any research and writing time, even though most universities now claim that they place “research-led” (or “research informed”) teaching at the centre of their “missions”. The “bank” contract worker is expected to do all their research and publishing in their own spare time, and for free even though (as far as the University authorities are concerned) the research-active tutor is necessarily superior in terms of designing and delivering teaching to the tutor who makes no research effort/is not research active. “Bank” contract workers are worse off even than those staff on teaching fellowships, who enjoy a significant proportion of their paid time to keep up with the key developments in their field and, in any case, get paid massively more. Again, keeping up with developments in the field is a basic necessity for anyone expected to deliver high-quality research-informed teaching at undergraduate level or higher. But, yet again, the “bank” contract worker is expected to do this in their own time, and unpaid.

Worse still, “bank” contract teaching is paid at an ungenerous rate in terms of hours of preparation deemed requisite to deliver a given amount of teaching. For example, three hours pay is allocated to deliver one lecture; two hours to prepare and one to actually deliver. This is reasonable if a pre-existing lecture only requires minimal revision to be delivered again, but it discourages any major innovations in teaching unless the tutor concerned is prepared to invest all the extra effort required in re-vamping a module from their free time; this is, of course, while also having to keep up with reading the latest literature and pursuing their own research and publishing agenda.

To write a lecture in the humanities or social sciences for a new module from scratch, supported with a well-planned and entertaining (nicely illustrated) PowerPoint presentation can take anything up to five full days’ work. The “bank” worker still gets paid the same two hours preparation for what could be forty hours work. On one occasion I was fortunate enough to be asked to deliver a pre-existing module with ready-prepared slides, some lecture notes and even some of the lectures recorded. I still spent some days (unpaid, of course) working on each of the majority of the lectures; I wanted to improve their content and structure, to make them ‘mine’ and not to cut corners in any way; that would be to short-change the students. This kind of behaviour is actively discouraged by the conditions of “bank” contracts; though of course it is also simultaneously expected from us by our employers.

Of course, the “bank” contract worker might think that, if they give their time freely now, to re-cast a module and make it work much better, gain improved student feedback and so forth, that a proper contract might be offered them by a grateful employer in the future. Personal experience suggests this is an illusion for, while the platitudes of the vice-chancellors regarding the importance of quality teaching are generally repeated, with greater or lesser actual conviction, by ordinary staff, in practice the over-riding aim tends to be merely ensuring that sufficient modules run to keep the students happy. Thus, relatively long-standing “zero hours” tutors have little or no bargaining power; if they are unhappy with being asked to deliver (and improve) the same modules repeatedly with no chance of an improved contract, there are always plenty more people, fresh from doing their PhDs and desperate for some teaching experience, who can (and will) replace them. In all cases, “bank” contract tutors are not paid to develop new modules to teach; that, too, is expected to  be voluntary work, as far as the university is concerned.

There is a related fourth aspect of the “bank” contract worker’s plight. As they are paid only to prepare and deliver certain specific hours, there is no incentive to be around a department apart from when actually delivering ‘contact’ hours (in class with the students). Those who need to do other jobs to make ends meet at the time when they are not scheduled to teach cannot come into their departments unpaid even if they wanted to. This means the “bank” contract worker is ordinarily left isolated from their fellow workers, making it difficult to find out who is on similar terms to themselves and, indeed, not really knowing who most of their colleagues actually are. This anonymity can sometimes be useful; in the recent round of UCU strikes I had no pay deducted even though I supported all strikes as I had not been asked if I was striking by the head of department. Even though I was leading a module, my profile was so low that I had simply gone unnoticed.

Of course, if you’re hoping to make a good impression through your teaching with the aim of securing a better contract, this kind of anonymity has its problems. That I was not noticed was just as well in my case as my UCU branch had no provision in place for providing strike pay for “bank” contract workers. Theoretically, the “bank” contract worker stands to lose a lot more, proportionately, if a strike falls on a day when they were timetabled to deliver teaching. But this isolation and invisibility necessarily makes the “bank” tutor a usually more compliant worker, rendered highly unlikely to act against possible bullying or harassment for fear of losing their very precarious hold on any kind of work in the sector at all. In short, raised above the parapet, a “bank” worker’s head is particularly easy to shoot. They do not need to be sacked; they are simply offered no more work.

In terms of relations with the students, “bank” contract workers tend to get the teaching no one else in a department wants; so they get offered, for example, the same “pack ‘em in” mass first year modules (and, in my department, the strangely despised ‘research methods’ modules…). While they might, if they are diligent, be able to develop a good working rapport with their students over the year, “bank” tutors very rarely get the chance to continue this working relationship, as they are again offered the same first year modules the following year. When asked by a keen first year who has evidently enjoyed the teaching delivered them at a knock-down price “what might you be teaching next year…?”, the “bank” contract tutor can only answer honestly; “I haven't the faintest idea, but probably this module again…”

It can be amusing to get the students in a humanities or social science class, especially (with their very low numbers of contact hours), to work out just how much the class is costing each of them, and how much they are paying collectively to be there. Then tell them what you’re getting paid to do deliver it. You might then ask them where the rest of the money (the vast bulk of it) goes… Unsurprisingly, many soon start saying they have had a change of heart in terms of their career paths. The plans to be a corporate lawyer or a city trader go out of the window; they now all want to be university vice-chancellors… The rapport with the students is such that “bank” contract workers are often asked for references by their students. This happens to me quite frequently. The students identify you as the member of staff who best knows them and their work and (rightly) expect a reference from you. It’s not in my job description, so it ends up being another form of unpaid work the “bank” tutor does for the university, out of feeling a sense of obligation towards the unsuspecting students.

Of course, this teaching can still be very rewarding and it does, if the module is led by a full-time member of staff, mean that the “bank” contract worker has little or no administrative responsibility, nor responsibility for the overall success or failure of the module. As noted above, there are also chances to design and lead modules, but here the “bank” contract worker can get quite resentful. They are then doing exactly what their permanent colleagues are doing (and some diligent “bank” workers, in terms of students’ ratings, sometimes do rather better than many of their tenured colleagues), but for comparative peanuts. All of this can only happen in the first place as the competition for the precious few proper contracts in many parts of the HE is such that there are tens and quite possibly even hundreds prepared to replace the disgruntled “bank” contract worker with but a moment’s notice.

Replacements can come from the growing numbers of Ph.D. students desperate to get some teaching experience (so desperate in fact that there have been cases of some departments effectively getting their Ph.D. students to literally teach for free, albeit in un-credited modules…). I also know of at least one casualised worker who IS willing to work for free: I keep telling him not to give his employers any ideas…! Then there are the growing numbers of those with Ph.D.s who cannot get proper contracts but who live in hope, using “bank” contract work to keep their heads above water until the promised land of a tenured position comes along. If often doesn’t. If you’re in this category then you’re really in trouble if you want a proper future in the academy. Finally, in my institution, at least, there are a few retired former teachers and professionals who do this work for fun. As they have their pensions already sorted, they can afford the conditions and are not subject to the same pressures as the rest of us, as their careers are behind them. The quality of the teaching they deliver can also vary quite considerably. Some seem able to get away with all kinds of student-unfriendly behaviour almost with impunity. The colossal slagging they get in student feedback at the end of each academic year seems to have no impact on their methods the following year, nor does it seem to prevent them from being invited once again to teach on the same modules… While there is an army of potential replacements out there waiting for their chance, it is easier to simply retain certain people who know the modules concerned back-to-front; especially people who won’t even think about protesting about their contractual status (they don’t need to…)  
 
The tide might be on the turn in terms of casualisation in HE, though, thanks to many University’s preference for opacity over transparency it is not entirely clear that this IS the case… Currently, there remains in the British HE sector the spectre of students paying increasingly vast sums of money to attend (with university fees having risen to the top limit of £9,000 in very many institutions) being taught by people who are subject to the peculiar pressures and problems that working on “zero hours” contracts entail. The growing contradictions of this situation must surely become untenable, and the recent initiatives by various types of casualised staff in HE to form together and try to exert pressure on University hierarchies are a very encouraging sign that perhaps, through organisation and solidarity, all the various forms of casualised working can in the future be eliminated from the sector altogether.



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