Flexible and fair employment

As an employer of half a million people in the UK in a wide range of occupations, the HE sector continues to evolve its employment practices and balance the needs of students, funders and staff.

Balancing these obligations is no mean feat against a complex and challenging economic, social and technological backdrop. The Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA)’s latest report, “Flexible and Fair: Improving employment approaches for staff on variable hours and fixed-term contracts” throws some fresh light on the active steps HE employers are taking.

Supporting the workforce through change

The report is the result of a year-long project working with an employer steering group drawn from a range of HE institutions. The examination of practices undertaken shows in particular how HE institutions are seeking to provide support to their casual and fixed-term employees and focus on better workforce planning. It looks at both how they support fixed-term lecturers throughout their employment, attending to both the employee and the student experience, and their use of alternatives to “zero hour contracts” to improve certainty for casual employees.   

A key component of the report is the eight HE institution case studies examining the institutions’ approaches to using variable or fixed-term employment contracts. The case studies highlight the significant improvements that HE institutions are making in workforce planning, including better engagement with managers and more scrutiny of how fixed-term and casual contracts are being used. This report and the accompanying case studies offer a deep dive into two areas of employment practice which have been the subject of scrutiny and concern in recent years, with a view to identifying positive approaches to balance the needs of institutions and their staff.

Variable hours contracts can offer an alternative to zero hours contracts by providing staff with a fixed minimum number of hours that provide stability to those employees for whom this is important. Fluctuations in demand for these staff can be managed through additional hourly-paid work. Such arrangements may differ in their exact specification and in some cases might change the administrative burden, however the case studies show that this approach is not only possible but can provide returns in terms of employee engagement, improved employment relations and increased staff morale. The case study findings provide a straightforward set of considerations for managers in HEIs to consider and could form the basis of engagement with local trade union representatives.

Helping staff across the sector

The increase in teaching-focused staff in UK HE institutions is generally explained as a response to increasing year-to-year fluctuations, a greater demand for external practitioner expertise and insight, better labelling of contracts within the statistics, and greater opportunities for postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers to contribute to teaching and learning. While HE institutions of course focus on what is beneficial to students, the case studies presented highlight the importance of a focus on employees, through integrating staff into the academic environment, rewarding them appropriately and supporting their professional development. The report provides a “back to basics” framework of considerations for academic managers. It recognises the diversity of the sector and that HE institutions take a range of approaches to a given set of issues, but intends that the framework can be adjusted to meet institutional needs or complement existing similar materials.   

Chair of the steering group and UCEA board member Frances Dow said:

While casual and fixed-term contractual arrangements will always be a feature in any workforce, employment practices related to non-standard contracts have come under considerable scrutiny in higher education. Many HE institutions, including those we looked at, have responded by reviewing and evolving their approaches to employing staff on casual and hourly-paid arrangements, often in discussion with their local trade union representatives. This report provides the sector with a valuable resource that we believe will assist with improving the employment deal for casual staff and help managers in particular consider the ways they are supporting the valued individuals who deliver teaching on a fixed-term basis.


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