Prestigious universities using ‘gig economy’ practices

King’s College UCU members on a march for Palestine – 96 per cent of King’s research staff are on fixed term contracts

University and College Union (UCU) has released a report today, (Wednesday 31), which finds that around two-thirds (66 per cent) of research staff are employed on fixed-term contracts, some less than a year in length.

University researchers do important work, such as helping to develop Covid vaccines, and also help to bring vital funding into universities and colleges.
Yet UCU’s ‘Support for Research Staff’ report lays bare the extent of the ‘gig-economy’-style employment practices at some of the most prestigious universities in the UK.
The report is based on freedom of information (FOI) requests to the 103 UK higher education institutions that employ at least 20 research-only staff and/or where research staff made up at least five per cent of the academic staff, combined with Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data on research staff terms of employment.
The results, published for the first time, paint a damning picture of the sector’s employment practices. Key findings include:

  • Around two in three research staff are employed on fixed term contracts, including 88 per cent of research staff at the University of Oxford, 96 per cent at King’s College London, 80 per cent at the University of Manchester and 96 per cent at the London School of Economics.

Nearly a third of universities (30 per cent) were unable to say whether research staff were redeployed at the end of their contract.
Of those institutions that did respond, redeployment levels were as low as zero.
Only one employer offered enhanced paid notice periods to research-only staff on fixed-term contracts.
Most employers paid only statutory redundancy pay to research staff dismissed at the end of a fixed-term contract.
The report uses the FOI responses and HESA data to score employers and determine how well they support their research-only staff to improve their security of employment.
Questions include whether researchers were successfully redeployed when coming to the end of their contract, the availability of ‘bridging’ funding to keep staff employed between projects, and the use of enhanced redundancy pay and extended notice periods.
The results paint a picture of poor practice across the board.
Universities were scored out of 100. The highest score was just 64.
Only eight universities scored above 50, whereas 39 universities received a score of less than 30.
The report sets out a series of recommendations for employers to help stamp out precarious research contracts. These include:

  • Working with UCU towards a more sustainable model of employment for research staff;
  • Committing to reducing the use of fixed term contracts and moving research staff into more secure forms of employment;
  • Providing greater support for staff reaching the end of their contract or externally funded project such as offering bridging periods, extended notice periods and enhanced redundancy pay.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘This report shines a light on an area that universities would rather keep shrouded in darkness.
‘Namely, the widespread use of gig-economy-style short-term contracts for the staff who prop up university research departments.
‘The poor scores across the board on areas like fixed-term contracts, proper redeployment processes and decent redundancy provision speaks of a sector that urgently needs to update its attitudes to employment practices.
‘Critically, the worst practices are not confined, as one might expect, to the least financially secure institutions. Far from it: five of the 24 Russell Group universities are in the bottom half of the table.
‘At Oxford, for example, a staggering 88 per cent of research staff are employed on a fixed-term contract.
‘The current funding model for much UK research allows employers to blame the system for their choice of employment practices. But we should be clear, it is a choice.
‘Better workload management by employers coupled with the use of proper redeployment can help move staff to more sustainable employment.
‘Worryingly, nearly a third of respondents were not able to tell us how successful they had been in maintaining their research staff in employment.
‘Universities need to work with UCU towards a more sustainable model for the employment of research staff.
‘They need to commit to reducing the use of fixed term contracts and move their research staff to genuinely secure contracts.
‘And they need to put systems in place that support continuity of employment and minimise the risk of redundancy at the end of funded research projects.’

  • Unite members at Cambridge University are taking to the picket line in an escalation of strike action over the low pay they are receiving and the refusal to offer a fair increase.

The university is trying to force through a real terms pay cut. Workers have only been offered an increase of between five and six per cent.
The pay award was due to come into effect in August last year when the real inflation rate (RPI) stood at nine per cent.
Unite union members, some of whom earn under £23,000, are demanding above inflation rises to cope with the cost of living in one of the most expensive parts of the UK outside London.
450 members working in the university library, the department of engineering, estate management, the Fitzwilliam Museum and information services will be taking strike action from today, Wednesday 31st January until Friday 2nd February 2024.
Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham, said: ‘Cambridge University has been enforcing below inflation pay rises for too long and our members have had enough.
‘It might be a prestigious university, but that doesn’t put food on the table or pay the bills of essential workers doing vital roles across the university.
‘Our members have the full support of Unite as they stand up to their employer and demand a fair pay deal.’
Cambridge University was ranked the third-best university in the world in 2023 and its last accounts show it has an income of over £2.2 billion, assets of over £6.6 billion and an operating surplus of £120 million.
Unite regional coordinating officer, Ian Maidlow, added: ‘Workers are being forced to take this action in response to the continued real terms pay cuts by one of the richest education establishments in the world.
‘This strike action will bring substantial disruption to services for students and staff including building closures. I’d urge the university to come back to the negotiating table with a better offer worthy of our members’ hard work.’


  • Class sizes in Cambridge hit 90!

Class sizes at a high school are sometimes reaching 90 pupils due to teacher shortages!
Unions are consulting members about strike action over issues at Longsands Academy in St Neots, Cambridgeshire.
Principal Dr Catherine Cusick said the school is meeting with unions to discuss their concerns and is working hard to improve.
On at least two occasions so far this term, groups of between 60 and 90 students had been supervised by staff in the main hall while they worked from text books.
A staff member, who didn’t want to be named through fear of victimisation, said: ‘Teachers are leaving in their droves due to unacceptable management practices including prescribed teaching methods, strict behaviour rules, curriculum changes, workload, constantly being watched and targeted, poor communication, diminished staff student relationships due to policies, rules and expectations, lack of consultation and staff treatment by management.’
There was a ‘real culture of fear for staff’ and about a quarter of teaching staff had left in recent months, they added.
The school is part of the Astrea Academy Trust, whose other schools include St Ivo Academy in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, where NASUWT teachers union members have also been been on strike over behaviour policies.
A parent, who also asked to remain anonymous, said their child at Longsands had been taught by 20 different supply and cover teachers in their first year at the school.
‘There has been no consistency or continuity. My duty as a parent is to ensure the best education possible, and during their first year, they did not get that.
Another parent said she was considering taking her 13-year-old child out of Longsands Academy and sending them to an independent school.
Niamh Sweeney, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the union was aware of serious concerns over staff retention and recruitment that were having an knock-on effect on teacher and support staff workload.
She said: ‘These issues are nationwide and whilst we would like the secretary of state to address the teacher supply issue with additional funding, increased pay and a long-term recruitment strategy, it is being left to individual schools to deal with.’
It was ‘not good’ for young people to be taught in classes of 60 to 90 by non-subject specialists, she said.
‘The impact of high staff turnover on pupils is evident and we would like to work constructively with the leadership at Longsands without having to take strike action, but we are currently in dispute.
‘No teacher considers taking strike action lightly and we remain hopeful that it can be avoided.’