The University and College Union

Case study

As a trade union, the University and College Union (UCU), represents the interests of academic and professional support staff in the higher education sector in Scotland.  Over the past decade we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of temporary, casual and fixed term contracts being used by employers.  We find that significant numbers of women are working on these contracts.  UCU has been campaigning and negotiating to minimise and eradicate precarious contracts in the university sector for some time.   A key plank of the union’s pay and conditions dispute 2019-20 was over the use of casual contracts in universities.

Given the current Covid-19 crisis and lockdown, and the funding challenges in the university sector, we are now finding that casual and fixed term contracts are not being renewed, and due to recruitment freezes, workers are struggling to find alternative employment to remain in the sector.  In the data we are currently examining we fear that women are affected disproportionately by this Covid-19 job insecurity.

This is sadly impacting upon women who are over-represented in early academic career stages and who, already face a gender pay gap of  15.9% in the higher education sector.

As well as being more at risk of losing their jobs in this crisis, women also are at risk of other forms of detriment.  For example, the use of some casual contracts can mean that women are not entitled to maternity pay and leave benefits in the same was as permanent staff.

To increase awareness of the impact of precarious contracts in Scottish higher education.  We know that over half of academics in higher education are on some form of insecure contract and that women are overrepresented in the early career and other precarious contracts.

We aim to:

1. Gain support for our demands that higher education institutions move away from using precarious and casualised contracts and instead negotiate agreements with UCU to reduce reliance on insecure contracts and to follow best practice employment policies in line with the Scottish Government’s fair work agenda; and
2. Encourage the Scottish Government, as a significant funder of Scottish higher education (more than £1bn annually), to use its influence on the sector to end the use of precarious employment contracts.

A number of universities have local UCU led campaigns and negotiations against casualisation, including at Glasgow, Strathclyde and Edinburgh universities.  They have produced campaign material and reports and concluded collective agreements with employers.

The union is currently assessing the numbers of fixed term staff currently at risk of redundancy, and working to secure funding for the sector to minimise any job losses, particularly amongst women, younger workers and BME workers.  The union offers free membership to PhD level students who undertake paid teaching work.  This recognises that those, including many women, at the start of their careers are often most in need of support from a trade union.  Demanding universities take action against casualisation (along with on gender pay) has been a significant part of UCU’s annual pay claim in recent years and was a key demand during the 22 days of strike action taken by UCU members in late 2019 and February and March 2020 in the ongoing dispute.

As detailed earlier, there are a growing number of campaigns against casualisation at Scottish universities.  Staff and students at Scottish universities are invited to contact their local UCU branch or UCU Scotland ( to make contact with their local campaign and campaign to end the use of precarious contracts in universities.

Find out more about University and College Union (UCU):


Social Media: @UCU and @UCUScotland