How Will Zero-Hour Contracts Change UK’s Academic Culture?


university lecture hall
Sorry, didn’t see the McDonald’s sign outside.
When I began looking for work towards the end of my doctorate in the late 2000s, the notion of a ‘zero-hour’ contract (PDF) was still unthinkable to me. I did not contemplate the possibility that academics might rewarded for years of study, teaching, hard work with a no-obligations, no-guaranteed-income employment contract. I do not think that any of my peers gave this possibility much thought either.

To my knowledge, the term ‘zero-hour contract’ was not in common usage in the UK of the mid-2000s. Of course, academia has long been a very competitive professional sphere. Success in academia labour has long depended on more than one’s talent as a scholar, in the UK and elsewhere. Consider the opening paragraphs of Max Weber’s famous essay Science as a Vocation:

Max Weber
Max Weber in 1894

“Everybody knows that in Germany the career of the young man who is dedicated to science normally begins with the position of Privatdozent. After having conversed with and received the consent of the respective specialists, he takes up residence on the basis of a book and, usually, a rather formal examination before the faculty of the university. Then he gives a course of lectures without receiving any salary other than the lecture fees of his students. It is up to him to determine, within his venia legendi, the topics upon which he lectures.

In the United States the academic career usually begins in quite a different manner, namely, by employment as an ‘assistant.’ This is similar to the great institutes of the natural science and medical faculties in Germany, where usually only a fraction of the assistants try to habilitate themselves as Privatdozenten and often only later in their career.

Practically, this contrast means that the career of the academic man in Germany is generally based upon plutocratic prerequisites. For it is extremely hazardous for a young scholar without funds to expose himself to the conditions of the academic career. He must be able to endure this condition for at least a number of years without knowing whether he will have the opportunity to move into a position which pays well enough for maintenance.” (Weber 1918/1946: 129)

Over the past century, things have changed surprisingly little in German academia. Careers below the professorial ranks are still highly precarious, and recent reforms have done little to create stable career pathways for those who are not well-connected or do not meet Weber’s “plutocratic prerequisites.”

Indeed, a guide to international academic careers on the website of the European University Institute claims: “The German system fairly corresponds to the Continental European model: there is a widespread belief that positions at universities are given on the basis of personal contacts more than a merit. A reform has been implemented in 2001, so far with mixed outcomes.” These problems have led quite a few German academics to seek ‘exile’ at universities in the UK or US, where careers progress much more transparently, along a ladder of ranks that offer stable long-term employment, from lecturer to professor.

Unfortunately, it seems that I was conceited in my belief that the precarization of labour that was already rampant when I was a student would not catch up with academics. In the US, an ‘adjunctification’ of academic employment has taken place, in which tenure-track positions that offer long-term prospects seem to be on the way to becoming an exception among short-term, part-time positions that offer little by way of professional stability, opportunities for creative teaching, or possibilities to engage in genuine scholarship (123).

In British academia, the seeming entrenchment of zero-hour contracts might achieve the same outcomes. According to a statement on the UCU website published in late 2013, “Sixty-one percent of further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have teaching staff on zero-hour contracts and 53% of UK universities, that responded to the union’s Freedom of Information request, use them.”

To be sure, some universities’ liberal use of zero-hour contracts has met with resistance, and the sheer anguish hyper-precarious non-employment causes among academics has become a subject of ongoing public debate (1234).

And yet, there is little to suggest that the trend towards hyper-precarious employment in British academia is going to abate. If this assumption is correct, considerable changes to academic culture in the UK might follow. Weber’s “plutocratic prerequisites” might come to play an ever greater role in determining who is able to endure years of unstable on-off employment on the way to an eventual lectureship.

The ability to be creative as a scholar depends in many ways on peace of mind and an encouraging and stimulating work environment. Life as a zero-hour adjunct on the margins of academia, teaching a few hours here and there while struggling to survive professionally and financially, is not encouraging, and it is stimulating in all the wrong ways.

The potential political consequences of the adjunctification of academic labor in the UK seem likewise troubling. On the one hand, adjunctification creates steep hierarchies between those few who are still in stable, long-term employment and those who are not. On the other hand, those who have thus been relegated to the bottom of academic hierarchies will struggle to make themselves heard, regardless of the merits of their academic work. How can academic institutions that are so hierarchical and exclusive still be sources of progressive political change?

Many of the developments I have outlined here are of course still embryonic, and hopefully much of what I have described will not come to pass. Nonetheless, it does seem ever more important to debate what role academics will be able to play in public life and political debates in the future.


Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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