More than half of Kingston University’s lecturers are employed on controversial zero-hour contracts, a report revealed.
Kingston is one of five UK universities employing more than 1,000 academics on such contracts, which are highly flexible and do not guarantee work or pay.
Peter Finn, who represents KU staff on zero-hour contracts at the University and College Union (UCU), said: “You get offered the work as and when it comes up, but you’re not promised any work.
“It’s very stressful when you’re waiting for work and you’ve got a mortgage to pay or kids to raise or childcare to arrange, and you’re one of the 1,000 who don’t get their teaching confirmed until really late.”
Kingston refers to staff on zero-hour contracts as hourly-paid lecturers (HPLs). The report, published by UCU, revealed that 1,069 of the University’s 1,840 academics are HPLs.
Mr Finn, an HPL for politics and a PhD student at Kingston, argued that such contracts could be useful for visiting lecturers, but not all staff.
“When you’ve got people who are being kept on very insecure contracts for a really long period of time, and you get to the point where you’ve got more HPLs than permanent members of staff, then I definitely think there’s an issue there,” he said.
Last month, Labour leader Ed Miliband called for the abolishment of exploitative zero-hour and similar contracts that allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work.
However, Mr Finn said that Kingston did not operate in this manner and that the flexibility of the contract was a positive as well as a negative for staff.
But this year, some departments did not inform HPLs of how many hours they would be working until as late as one week before the start of term, according to him.
“People need to plan and if you’re not going to get enough work here, then you need to be able to look for work elsewhere,” he said.
“If you’re not given enough notice then that is a problem.”
Edinburgh University pledged to ban zero-hour contracts after UCU’s report revealed that it employed more teaching staff on such contracts than any other UK university.
However, Mr Finn did not think that an outright ban similar to Edinburgh University’s decision would happen at Kingston.
He pointed out that two years ago, UCU and the University came to an agreement and created an “upgrade process”, allowing HPLs to switch more permanent contracts if they met certain criteria.
“I would much prefer to be working on a permanent contract, but so would many other people,” he said.
A University spokeswoman confirmed that Kingston held 1,069 HPLs on its books.
However, she said that in the last financial year, only 799 academics had been paid on an hourly basis.
Of these, only 277 were paid £5,000 or more.
“Staff on zero-rated contracts are employed under the same terms and conditions as all others at Kingston University and are entitled to defined benefit pensions, enhanced sickness and maternity pay and good holiday allowances,” said the spokeswoman, adding that staff on these contracts are generally part-time lecturers.
She said that Kingston’s human resources team would review HPL staff this year and aimed to work together with faculties and unions.
According to the University, most HPLs also hold permanent roles in industry, but UCU were unconvinced that zero-hour contracts suited the majority of staff.
“The flexibility is largely a one-way street which benefits the employer,” said a UCU spokesman.
“We are keen to work with any institution that wants to move their staff on to better terms and conditions and hope others will follow Edinburgh’s lead.”
Mr Finn’s colleague Amanda Latimer, also an HPL in politics and international relations, said she was worried about the impact on the quality of students’ education.
“If this casualisation of labour is the norm, despite the fact that you guys are paying £9,000, the quality of education is actually going in the opposite direction,” she said.
She said that for HPLs, it was normal to work at three different universities or more, teaching three or four modules a semester in different settings.
“You can’t develop the material, you can’t develop the connection with the students as much anymore, and you can’t commit to helping the department of the institution over the long term,” she said.
Ms Latimer, who is also a UCU member and a PhD student, added that zero-hour contracts used to be a stepping stone for people like her.
“Casual work used to be an option. This is now becoming the norm,” she said.
Zero-hour contracts are “a bit like prostitution”
Maria Costatino, 53
HPL at FADA, teaching history of art
Maria Costatino has taught at Kingston for six years, and for six years, she has been on a zero-hour contract.
With the money she makes, Maria has to support herself and her disabled mother. Sometimes, she does not get enough hours during term time and has to take on other work in the summer.
“Generally, in the summer, I’ll be a cleaner, cleaning people’s houses or cleaning banks at night, so I go into the City to Canary Wharf and clean HSBC,” she said.
Maria is a qualified lecturer with links to the arts world.
This semester, she will teach just 24 hours at Kingston, doing only dissertation tutorials. She may also teach MA students, but she has not been told yet.
She said that the University has introduced a “sliding scale” pay rate for HPLs, under which one-to-one tutorials are being paid at a lower rate than other types of teaching.
“It’s a bit like prostitution,” she said. “We’re paid sort of hand job, blow job, or full sex. They made a rubbish distinction between seminar teaching and a lecture and a tutorial.”
While the University did not pay her over the summer, she said she still had to work, for example advising students starting their dissertations.
She said she has tried to apply for a permanent contract three times via Kingston’s “upgrade process”, but so far she’s been unsuccessful.
“To its credit, Kingston does have a system in place,” she said. “At another college, I’m doing 500 hours a year – the equivalent of a full-timer, but on a zero-hour contract.”
She considers herself “lucky”, having no partner or children, because she believes that zero-hour contracts make it impossible to have a family or a mortgage.
While she understands the need for flexibility, she thinks zero-hour contracts should be made illegal across the economy.
“The bottom line is: We’re good enough to do the work, but we’re not good enough to get the job.”
Zero-hour contracts “positive for the old and bold”
Dr Dave Edmondson, 66
HPL at SEC, teaching MA level engineering
Dr Dave Edmondson retired from KU in 2009 and is now on zero-hour contracts at Kingston and two other universities.
The former senior lecturer for engineering lives in Cornwall and occasionally teaches at Kingston when the hours are convenient for him.
“I’ve got three zero-hour contracts with different universities and it suits me,” he said.
“For the old and the bold like me, who retire and then come back, zero-hour contracts are quite positive. The jobs that I take are the jobs I enjoy.”
Dr Edmondson also lectures at Portsmouth and Warwick and is in the financial position to be able to turn down hours.
“I turned down some lecturing a couple of months ago. It was one or two hours and the tutorials weren’t the next day,” he said.
About the number of lectures on zero-hour contracts at Kingston, he said: “Well, I don’t think it’s very desirable for the younger people trying to make their way in the academic world, who are worried about paying mortgages and the rest of it.”
Dr Edmondson believes Kingston has swung too far in using so many HPLs but said an outright ban of such contracts would not be practical for him and others like him.
“My own view of Kingston is that they should be more open in offering fractional contracts,” he said.