Employers say that staff like the flexibility of zero hours contracts. What rubbish…

30 Jun 2019, 5:00

A lack of job security in further, adult and prison education is making an army of workers mentally and physically ill – and forcing many to take on a second job to make ends meet, says Andrew Harden

Staff on insecure contracts working in further, adult and prison education are holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet. Some are even visiting food banks. These revelations are among the findings of a new report by the University and College Union (UCU), published today, which looks into the use of casual contracts in FE and their impact on the staff and students.

We surveyed 798 casualised staff members earlier this year and found that people without secure contracts were unpaid for about a third of their work (30 per cent). The report, Counting the costs of casualisation in further, adult and prison, also reveals the toll that a lack of job security has on their mental and physical health.

More than two-thirds of respondents (71 per cent) said they believed their mental health had been damaged by insecure contracts, and almost half (45 per cent) said it had impacted on their physical health.

The report paints a bleak picture of a hand-to-mouth existence where numerous jobs are often needed just to meet basic costs. More than half of respondents (56 per cent) said they had held at least two jobs in the past year.

No matter how many jobs people have, they find that busy and quiet periods are both stressful. The stress that comes with a shortage of hours, and therefore income, around holidays is just of a different kind to the one experienced when they are forced to accept as many hours as possible. Especially if you don’t have enough time or resources to cover long commutes, preparation and marking.

The report rubbishes the claim trotted out by employers that staff like the flexibility offered by zero-hours contracts. Budgeting is tough when you don’t know how many hours you will get.

Similarly, it’s impossible to plan if hours, and therefore income, are cancelled at short notice – a situation that left one respondent relying on food banks. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (72 per cent) said they had struggled to make ends meet and 56 per cent said they had problems paying the bills.

Almost all staff on a fixed-term contract (93 per cent) said that they would rather be on a permanent contract and about 72 per cent said they would sacrifice flexibility to secure a job with guaranteed hours.

None of this is good for staff, but it is also extremely damaging for students as staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Most respondents said they did not have the time to do their jobs properly.

The UCU report paints a bleak picture of a hand to mouth existence

More than four-fifths (83 per cent) said that they did not have enough paid time to prepare adequately for their classes. Similar proportions complained of insufficient time to get their marking done (84 per cent) and not being able to stay on top of their subjects (85 per cent).

Three-quarters (76 per cent) said they did not have enough time to give their students the feedback they deserved, and many complained that they were not given the same resources as permanent staff, which they said meant their teaching suffered. One said they had no work email address, no desk or workspace and struggled to get simple tasks such as photocopying done.

It’s now time to take a proper look at the problem. Ofsted has previously raised concerns that a lack of stability has an impact on the quality of teaching and learning. We want the watchdog to commit to taking a proper look at the negative impact of casualisation on students’ education.

It is not acceptable for colleges to continue to exploit the commitment and professionalism of an army of casual workers who are going the extra mile, sometimes in multiple jobs.

UCU has previously worked with colleges to improve the security of employment for teaching staff, and we will work with any employer willing to engage with us on this issue.

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  1. This is an interesting article Andrew and highlights the challenges in FE.

    As an ITP all of our staff are employed on a fixed-term contract with guaranteed hours, varying from 3 days per week to full-time. I disagree with classing fixed-term contracts as casual employment as prospective employees know exactly what guaranteed hours they are applying for.

    As a former Vice Chair of UCU Wales, I would love to employ all staff on permanent contracts in my business but the existing funding arrangements of allocations on a year-by-year basis make that impossible. I would rather employ staff on a fixed-term basis, knowing that I can genuinely employ them for that duration, rather than misleading staff by issuing permanent contracts that I cannot honour. One local college in Wales recently employed lots of new staff on permanent contracts to make them redundant just 5 months later.

    The issue is that it is the funding model arrangements that need reforming.