A FRUITFUL subject for a social scientist concerned with the effect of employment practices on individuals, the business or institution which employs them and the wider economy would be the erosion of terms and conditions and the casualisation of the workforce in Britain today.

That increasing numbers of academics are perfectly placed to carry out such research as a result of personal experience is no cause for congratulation. Far from willingly suffering privations as a means to fuller understanding, lecturers at Scottish universities are being employed on zero-hours contracts as a cost-cutting measure. A survey at Edinburgh University has revealed 27% of staff are on these contracts and in the College of Humanities and Social Science 47% are employed under such draconian terms. Under these arrangements, also known as hours-to-be-notified, employees are told how many hours they may be required to work but their employer is under no obligation to offer that amount of work. Traditionally such agreements have applied to work which is weather-dependent or areas where it is difficult to forecast demand. They are now being used in the NHS and higher education as a way of reducing staff costs. This may be necessary to some degree to hire additional staff when budgets are being squeezed. But with more than a quarter of staff at Edinburgh University employed in this way and a "proliferation" of zero-hours contracts at Glasgow University according to the lecturers' union, the extent of the practice is shocking.

That this is the case at two of Scotland's most prestigious universities suggests it is increasingly becoming the norm. The benefit to the university of being able to pay individuals as and when required is obvious. It ought to be equally obvious that this is a short-term solution which will result in long-term disadvantages. When staff do not know what they will earn from one month to the next, they have no financial security and obvious difficulties in getting mortgages or loans. Many will be faced with taking on other low-paid jobs on a casual basis to fit round their unpredictable hours and in such circumstances will feel no loyalty to the university which employs them.

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Although there will be occasions when irregular working patterns are required, it is likely that these will be predictable in relation to the academic year, exam timetable or research programmes. Instead of casual employment, a presumption in favour of part-time contracts, with hours agreed in advance and employment rights such as holiday and sickness pay, ought to be possible for the majority of employees in the 21st century.