A judge in the European Court of Justice has ruled that the use of agency lecturers who do not have employee pensions, or who earn less than college staff, could amount to sexual discrimination because the majority are women.
The opinion was delivered in the latest twist of the long-running case of Debra Allonby, a technology lecturer made redundant by Accrington and Rossendale College in 1996, and later re-employed through an agency. Ms Allonby was one of 341 part-time lecturers made redundant by the college in 1996, of whom 231 were women.
Her claim of sex discrimination reached the Court of Appeal in the UK, which asked the European Court to decide whether, for equal pay purposes, she could compare herself with a male lecturer directly employed by the college. It also asked for a ruling on whether her exclusion from the teachers' pension scheme was discrimination. European advocate general Leendert Geelhoed, whose role is to advise the European Court, said there is no single source of pay discrimination because Ms Allonby is paid by the agency and directly-employed lecturers are paid by the college.
The right to join a pension scheme is regarded as a component of pay, he said, therefore Ms Allonby cannot be compared to a directly-paid lecturer in this respect either.
He said: "That does not mean there cannot be indirect discrimination stemming from a sector-wide or legislative scheme.
"The regulations exclude lecturers who teach under an agreement to "provide services" (rather than being employed). There may be indirect discrimination if it appears that appreciably more women than men are affected by this condition."
The European Court will now begin its deliberations before passing the case back to the Court of Appeal.
Unions and employers in the Allonby case each get something out of the latest judgment, which offers crumbs of comfort to both sides of the argument about whether casual staff should get equal treatment.
It suggests the cause of discrimination could be the regulations on the use of agency lecturers - which would give force to the unions' efforts to find a national solution.
Mr Geelhoed's opinion was welcomed by Natfhe, the lecturers' union. Paul Mackney, Natfhe general secretary, said: "It's high time these inequities were dealt with. Membership of the teachers' pension scheme should be a right for all lecturers. And it's a disgrace if any employer can get around the EC principle of equal treatment."
Joanna Martin, managing director of agency Protocol Professional, formerly Education Lecturing Services, which employed Ms Allonby, said: "It's further confirmation of our position. We supply self-employed staff to the education sector in full compliance of all legislation."
Julie Mellor, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said colleges should not get away with paying Ms Allonby less by employing her via an agency.
"This decision makes it all the more vital that the Agency Workers Directive, which is still being debated in Europe, covers pay as well as conditions, and is adopted and implemented in the UK as soon as possible."