Universities ignoring new laws on staff contracts

10 July 2006

European Union employment laws that come into effect today state that staff members who have been on fixed-term contracts for more than four years can now regard their posts as permanent.

However, despite knowledge of these provisions for over four years, most employers have done nothing to accommodate the new legislation. There are nearly 70,000 UK academics and academic-related staff employed by UK institutions on short-term contracts, more than four in 10 (43%) of all academic and related staff.

The University and College Union (UCU) today warns vice-chancellors that they must get their act together or they could face a rash of court cases over the coming months.

The Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations state that employees who have had their contract renewed or who are on at least their second contract and have four years' service (from 10 July 2002) can regard their posts as permanent. Only in exceptional circumstances when the employer can objectively justify the use of a fixed-term contract does this not apply.

The most recent statistics from the University and College Union (UCU) reveal that almost half (48%) of all staff on short-term contracts have been employed for four or more years at their institution, and are now entitled to a permanent contract. Almost a third (30%) had been employed for six years or more. The problem is particularly acute for research staff, where a whopping 89% are on short-term contracts.

Fixed-term contracts were originally intended to help staff get a first job before moving into a permanent role. However universities have been able to exploit the lack of legislation to develop a culture where over two fifths (43%) of all academic and related staff in universities are on short-term contracts.

To avoid providing full benefits and job security many universities have repeatedly renewed short-term contracts, rather than take the staff on permanently. Over half (51.1%) of staff on short-term contracts have been offered at least three contracts at their institution. Just under one in 10 (9.4%) has been offered more than 10 contracts during their period of employment.

The overwhelming majority (91.4%) of short-term contracts are for less than four years. The most common length of a contract is between one and two years. However two thirds (67%) of hourly-paid staff are on contracts of less than 12 months. Hourly-paid staff also get the worst deal when it comes to unpaid overtime. Nearly all (92%) said they do unpaid overtime, compared with over two thirds (68%) of all staff on short-term contracts.

UCU joint general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'There is no justification whatsoever for staff who have been on temporary contracts for four years not to be made permanent. Universities need to take the new legislation seriously and get their acts together. Staff on short-term contacts are less likely to get promoted, are paid less and work long hours with no extra reward. Universities cannot continue to exploit them and we are delighted we now have the legal backing to take them to task.

'I think it is disgusting that only the hotel and catering sector employs a greater percentage of staff on temporary contracts. We constantly hear warm words about the high regard staff in our universities are held in. In the week that we celebrate 100 wonderful achievements by UK academics it is incredible that nearly half the staff tasked with continuing that legacy are not even covered by a permanent contract.'

Last updated: 15 December 2015