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Over half of universities and colleges use lecturers on zero-hour contracts

5 September 2013

Universities and colleges are twice as likely to use zero-hour contracts than other workplaces, according to new findings released today by UCU.

Sixty-one percent of further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have teaching staff on zero-hour contracts and 53% of UK universities, that responded to the union's Freedom of Information request, use them. Overall, a quarter (27%) of companies use zero-hour contracts, according to recent research from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation*.
The union said the use of zero-hour contracts is rather haphazard and it is difficult to truly reflect just how widespread their usage is. Despite the large numbers of colleges and universities using zero-hour contracts, only a handful of institutions said they had policies on them.
Of the universities that reported they use zero-hour contracts:

  • just under half (46%) had more than 200 staff on zero-hour contracts
  • the remaining 54% of institutions the number employed on zero-hour contracts ranged from one to 199
  • five institutions had more than 1,000 people on zero-hour contracts
  • of the institutions that supplied information about zero-hour staff in work, just one in four (24%) said all their staff on zero-hour contracts currently had workZero-hour contracts are far more prevalent for university staff involved in teaching than in research.

The number of zero-hour teaching contracts in universities equates to 47% of the total number of 'teaching-only' posts that institutions report annually to the national statistical agency.

The union said its findings shone an important light on the murky world of casualisation amongst teaching staff. UCU said that recent attempts to uncover how prevalent zero-hour contracts are have highlighted just how difficult it is to get to the bottom of the problem.

Research released at the start of August suggested that there could be around one million workers in the UK on zero-hours contracts^ - a marked increase on revised estimations from the Office of National Statistics of 250,000~ just days earlier.

UCU president, Simon Renton, said: 'Our findings shine a light on the murky world of casualisation in further and higher education. Their widespread use is the unacceptable underbelly of our colleges and universities.

'Employers cannot hide behind the excuse of flexibility. This flexibility is not a two-way street and, for far too many people, it is simply a case of exploitation. We are encouraged that both the government and the opposition have said they will be looking at zero-hour contracts, but neither side has yet said anything that will give the thousands of people subjected to these conditions much hope.

'The extent of the use of zero-hour contracts is difficult to pin down, as various groups have found, but their prevalence in our universities and colleges leads to all sorts of uncertainty for staff. Without a guaranteed income, workers on zero-hour contracts are unable to make financial or employment plans on a year-to-year, or even month-to-month basis.'

The department for business, innovation and skills (BIS) is currently conducting a review of zero-hour contracts, which UCU will be contributing to. Shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, has written to Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority to raise concerns that official figures do not reflect the true scale of zero-hour contracts. The Labour party is likely to debate zero-hour contracts in the House of Commons after the party conference season.

On Sunday afternoon, UCU will lead a debate on zero-hour contracts at the TUC Congress in Bournemouth and call on other unions to join the fight against insecure contracts.

Full copies of the data are available from the press office.

Case studies of academic staff on zero-hour contracts are available from the press office.

* One in four firms use zero-hour contracts
^ One million on zero-hour contracts
~ ONS revises its figures of number of people on zero-hour contracts


On 1 July 2013 UCU sent a Freedom of Information Act request to every UK higher education institution asking questions about the use of zero-hour contracts at the institution. The union received replies from 145 institutions - three of which have refused to provide the data - either because they do not hold it (two) or because of the cost of compiling the data (one).

17 institutions have so far failed to respond to the request. Whilst most institutions were able to say whether or not they used zero-hour contracts there remained some uncertainty about the definition of such contracts.
On 3 July 2013 UCU sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 275 UK further education colleges asking questions about the use of zero-hour contracts at the institution. 200 colleges responded. 121 (60.5%) said they do use zero-hour contracts, 79 (39.5%) said they do not.

Last updated: 10 December 2015