UNIVERSITIES have pledged to take action over zero-hours contracts after concerns over thousands of teaching and research staff hired on such deals.

A Sunday Herald survey found Edinburgh University and Queen Margaret University have already "significantly" cut the number of such contracts. The University of the West of Scotland and Aberdeen and Glasgow universities said they were actively looking at their use.

Last year, a survey by the University and College Union (UCU) found 5315 academic and research staff on zero-hours contracts. Mary Senior of UCU Scotland said the ­"exploitative" contracts have no place in publicly-funded institutions.

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She said: "Scotland's excellent academic reputation is unfortunately being built upon the disgraceful exploitation of hundreds of temporary staff, with universities using the fierce competition for permanent jobs to create a no-rights culture for teachers and researchers.

"It is time universities did away with casual contracts and stopped taking advantage of their hard-working staff."

Edinburgh University acted last year after it emerged it was the biggest zero-hours contract user. Many "hours-to-be-notified staff" had been moved to guaranteed hours and a project was creating "greater consistency and transparency", a spokesman said.

Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh said it has significantly cut zero-hours contracts and "will continue to do so".

A University of the West of Scotland spokesman said the university is reviewing its position over variable-hours contracts.

Glasgow University said it was talking to trades unions about cutting zero-hours contracts and "atypical workers."

The University of Aberdeen said it was working with trades unions to review use of zero-hours contracts. Abertay University in Dundee said its review of zero-hours deals would happen "in the near future".

The University of the Highlands and Islands said most academic staff were employed by partner institutions, but it keeps contracts of this type "under regular review".

Edinburgh Napier said staff on zero-hours contracts enjoy "associated benefits".

A spokesman for Stirling University said: "A large proportion of staff employed on zero-hours contracts are also students of the university, gaining invaluable practical work experience alongside their degrees."

Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, St Andrews and Glasgow Caledonian universities said they did not have any staff on zero-hours contracts.

A spokesman for Dundee University said its only zero-hours staff were 40 workers in the Institute of Sport and Exercise. Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University and Strathclyde University in Glasgow did not comment.

A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said: "Variable contracts are offered to thousands of students … to fit around their studies, and to highly skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching."

'You can't plan and can't get a mortgage'

Zahira's story

ZAHIRA Hassan, 43, a care worker from Edinburgh, said that being on a zero-hours contract means she has no idea of how many hours she will be working each week.

She has one job contract which offers a fixed number of hours - 19.5 hours per week - but has to also be on standby for a role which does not offer any guaranteed hours.

She said: "My next job on the zero-hours contract will be at the end of May. It will only be about four hours and that has been a couple of months since the last one.

"The difference between the zero-hours and the fixed contract is I don't get any holidays, I don't get any sick pay, I don't get any benefits.

"Although I will get basic training, it won't be to the standard of somebody that has fixed-term hours."

Hassan, a single parent, said she took on the role because she was keen to take up the offer of any work after being made redundant.

But the unpredictability of the work also affects the fact she is trying to care for her elderly parents.

"It is often last-minute that you get called … I remember once just coming back from doing shopping and just having to jump in the car and go. It is really stressful.

"But if you refuse or say you are not able to do a shift, I have found - without saying the words - you just won't get another job."

She added: "You can't go forward, you can't plan, you won't get a mortgage - there is no real benefit.

"From all I have personally experienced and heard from others that have zero-hours contracts, there is not one positive thing.

"It is an employer's market and a worker has no rights."


John's story

PHILOSOPHY tutor John Donaldson, 33, from Glasgow, has four different zero-hours contracts involving teaching and work to widen participation in higher education. He said it is a "constant major headache" having to juggle the roles, but that it is the norm for many people trying to enter the academic job market.

He said: "It is not just the different competing timetables which can be a problem, it is also just the constant uncertainty of how much you are going to get paid and when.

"During terms you are quite busy as that's when all the teaching happens. Then there is nothing for the whole summer and … you just have to survive as best you can."

Boyd said his wages did include a calculation for holiday pay, but other vital benefits, such as sick pay, were not available.

"If you are treated like a normal employee and you are given a salary you can reliably count on in your bank account at the end of each month, you can use this to get things like mortgages and you can have a normal life," he says.

"Most of the people who work in the university who are on these kind of contracts are trying to enter the academic job market, so they are people who are doing PhDs or people who have just finished doing PhDs.

"These are people who have been in higher education for a long time, who have often accrued lots of debt in the process, and who are often trying to support families or get married … But they are being treated like this is a Saturday job."

He added: "There is nobody who teaches at the university who would choose to be on a zero-hours contract. It is basically the university doing things on the cheap."