An investigation by the Universities and Colleges Union has revealed that 83 teaching staff and 122 ‘academic related’ staff are on the controversial contracts in the university.
The report found that across the UK, 24,427 academic staff are employed on the contracts, in over half of higher education institutions. According to data from the Higher Education Standards Authority, this constitutes 12% of all academic staff.
The UCU investigation concluded, “For staff, zero-hour contracts present huge drawbacks in comparison to permanent regular work: there is no guaranteed level of regular earnings that provides any certainty over meeting bills or planning for the future… In short, zero-hour contracts are not compatible with developing a professional workforce delivering quality services.”
Simon Renton, President of UCU, commented further, “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.”
He continued, “For far too many people, it is simply a case of exploitation.”
Zero-hour contracts hire staff with no guarantee of work or a wage, instead depending on workers being called to work on a short term basis. They have been criticised for giving no stability to employees, but advocates argue they are necessary to give employers flexibility.
An Oxford University spokesperson defended the use of the contracts, which are officially described as “variable hours contracts”. They told Cherwell, “Many of those listed on variable hours contracts also have permanent contracts, to which the variable hours contract is merely an addition, so the variable hours contracts is not their primary contract of employment with the University.
“Variable hours contracts are full University contracts of employment that may be permanent or fixed duration. Variable hours contracts are used when it is not possible to predict the number of hours of work available.”
The revelations about Oxford’s use of zero hour contracts come amidst growing debate about their use. The Office for National Statistics claims that 250,000 people are on the contracts, although many claim that this is an underestimate.
Labour MP Tom Watson recently called for a ban on the contracts, arguing, “If employers want to be that flexible with wages then they must realise workers can’t be. They can’t be flexible with shopping bills, rent and mortgage payments.” Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has also said Ed Miliband should “go further” in his emphasis on a living wage, and promise to ban zero-hour contracts.
In August, the business secretary Vince Cable launched a review into the use of zero-hour contracts, suggesting that “at one end of the market” they can be “exploitative.”
Oxford students had a mixed response to the use of the contracts in the university. One St Hilda’s undergraduate said, “It is outrageous that a university with resources like ours can fail to give waged work to so many people.”
However, one second year PPEist commented, “Unemployment is a serious problem and zero hour contracts free up employers hands to quickly and efficiently hire those who perhaps would otherwise be out of a job.”