Casual contracts have been used in higher education institutions (HEIs) for many years. Here we look at how and why the landscape is changing and how institutions strike the right balance between flexibility and fairness.
The UK higher education sector is complex and a wide range of contractual arrangements have developed over the years to meet the changing requirements of institutions for flexibility in workforce planning.
On the academic side, this may be a response to student demand for particular programmes or modules and, on the professional services side, to peak service demands such as during examination periods.
Historically, some of these arrangements have involved the staff who deliver this teaching/services being engaged on casual contracts with consequent differences in entitlement to benefits and limitations on their rights.
An example is the role of postgraduate teaching assistants in some institutions. While post-graduate students value the opportunity to develop teaching skills and earn additional income, many institutions have recognised the need to balance this with fairness and to address the increased expectations of students as consumers.
These types of casual arrangements also bring with them an increased level of risk for institutions where there is a limited amount of central control on the use of such arrangements and where inconsistency in allocating and co-ordinating arrangements can arise. In addition, there is an increased administrative burden in the operation of numerous different arrangements across many departments/services.
Recent work in this area includes:
- The New JNCHES Hourly Paid and Casual Staff Working Group report published in 2015. This recognised the need to find a balance between an appropriate flexibility in the workforce and the delivery of fair and equitable employment practice.
- In July 2018, UCEA (the Universities & Colleges Employers Association) published its report, Flexible and Fair – Improving Employment Approaches for Fixed-term and Variable Hours Staff, to help HEIs to review their approaches to staff on variable hours contracts and fixed-term contracts.
The changing landscape
For the first time in the 2017/18 staff record (the most recent published data), the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reported on hourly paid staff. The data shows that the majority of teaching (73.7% ) is done by staff with open-ended salaried contracts. Nevertheless, there is still work to be done.
This topic also has to be seen against the government’s strategic and legislative proposals to reform employment law in response to the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices (July 2017) and its policy paper, the Good Work Plan (December 2018).
To-date, there has been little substantive change with various aspects out for consultations that were due to have closed in October 2019. Perhaps the most significant of these is the consultation on addressing one-sided flexibility. This includes a proposal for workers to have a right to switch to a contract that reflects their normal working hours and goes further than the commitment in the Good Work Plan to introduce a right to request such a contract. Given the present political turmoil, it is unclear if, and how, changes will be taken forward.
Balancing flexibility and fairness
One approach to changing the basis upon which postgraduate teaching assistants who deliver regular scheduled teaching are engaged is the increased use of annualised hours/termly staff contracts, while still retaining the option for casual contracts for truly ad-hoc work (in accordance with clear business rules).
These have the advantage that staff receive payment in regular monthly instalments and have clear entitlement to holiday and holiday pay.
The resulting contracts can deliver equal benefits and terms and conditions. They can also allow students to work flexibly without breaking service, as well as participate in induction, training and performance-development procedures.
The disadvantage is that one size does not necessarily fit all, and it will inevitably be the case that institutions are unlikely to meet everyone’s needs. It will, therefore, be important to consider a range of flexible options underpinned by effective consultation with stakeholders.
Key to the successful introduction of such arrangements is clarity around roles and responsibilities, and an increased and earlier focus on workforce planning as well as supporting managers, especially in the early stages of the implementation and use of new arrangements.