One of the most highly skilled and prestigious professions in Britain, university teaching, is now dominated by zero-hours contracts, temp agencies and other forms of precarious work, the Guardian can reveal. …

Academics teaching or doing research in British universities will typically have spent years earning doctorates or other qualifications, yet more than half of them – 53% – manage on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract. They range from short-term contracts that typically elapse within nine months, to those paid by the hour to give classes or mark essays and exams.

Among junior academics – those most likely to be doing frontline teaching – three-quarters are on these kinds of precarious contracts. It is highly likely that the majority of undergraduates are paying many thousands of pounds to be taught by casual workers. …

One-year and two-year contracts are an inevitable part of grant-funded research. But these figures show temporary and zero-hours contracts are now widespread among those teaching undergraduates. University managers typically argue that such flexible contracts allow young academics to gain valuable experience. But in interviews with the Guardian, academics have disputed that argument from their own experience, including:

A 44-year-old politics lecturer working at three different institutions at once but still earning only just over £6,000 a year, relying on benefits to top up his poverty pay.

A 32-year-old linguistics lecturer who has experienced “serious mental health issues” and says “unstable work without a network of colleagues and without any security is proving really difficult”.

A 49-year-old English lecturer who says: “I earn such a pathetic amount. I feel quite humiliated.”

Academics rarely speak out publicly against their precarious working arrangements for fear of being punished by losing hours. Some have spoken to the Guardian using a pseudonym while others have said they have “nothing left to lose”. …

The University of Birmingham said the figures, from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, were “extremely misleading”. It added in a statement: “While the university recognises that a significant number of individuals engaged in teaching are not on standard contracts, they provide only a small fraction of teaching (about 7%), because most of them are engaged for a small fraction of a full-time equivalent post.

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