A Yorkshire college's agreement with its part-time staff is seen as a template for the sector, reports Neil Merrick
Earlier this year, 40 part-time lecturers at Huddersfield Technical College gained extra job security when they were given new contracts of employment.
Instead of having to wait until the last minute to discover how much work they will be offered, each is being guaranteed a minimum number of hours per year and will have similar rights to full-time staff.
A national agreement signed between college employers and unions three years ago said it was desirable for lecturers who teach variable hours to hold fractional contracts stipulating a minimum amount of work.
This year's Natfhe conference will attempt to strengthen the position of part-timers in its discussions on the pay campaign.
The 2000 agreement, designed to help colleges comply with the EU Part-time Workers Directive, was not binding. According to Natfhe, Huddersfield is still in a minority in recognising the rights of part-timers and most of the sector still has a long way to go.
It is estimated that one in four FE lecturers works part-time. Some only teach a few hours per week in evening classes while others work regularly in the daytime alongside colleagues with full-time contracts.
Huddersfield Technical College employs about 700 part-time lecturers, 25 of whom moved to fractional contracts two years ago. Vice- principal Melanie Brooke says it is impossible to offer minimum hours to all part-timers but the college is determined to move toward that.
"Part-timers are a massive resource that we need to value more and make part of the organisation," she says. "We need to improve communication and make sure they can deliver to the same high standards."
Improved rights do not just mean guaranteed work. Under a charter drawn up by Natfhe and accepted by Huddersfield, part-timers are included in the college's internal telephone system and promised they will receive teaching timetables at the same time as full-time lecturers. In the long run, the college has also pledged to provide part-time staff with a desk and storage space, and pay them to attend team meetings and training events.
Many of the improvements have come about because of the efforts of Marie Lewis, who has taught health care and other subjects at Huddersfield for 10 years. She currently works about 16 hours per week, but has seen her timetable vary dramatically.
"I have worked for 10 years on insecure contracts," says Ms Lewis, who hopes to sign a new contract before September. "Nobody with my experience should be on a contract that can go down to nil hours."
John Giddins, Natfhe regional official for Yorkshire and Humberside, who spent a year negotiating the charter at Huddersfield alongside Marie Lewis, says most part-time staff at other colleges are still "peripatetic teachers working out of the boot of their cars".
Levels of training and development vary greatly. "Some colleges still see part-timers as an expendable group of cheap labour. Others see that it's in their interest that people keep up to speed," he says.
The national part-time employees' agreement signed three years ago states that part-timers should have access to staff development programmes and be included in college appraisal schemes.
Under government regulations, part-time lecturers appointed by colleges since September 2001 must either hold a teaching qualification or gain one within two to four years (depending on how much they teach).
Ministers want 60 per cent of part-time lecturers to hold or be working towards teaching qualifications by 200506, but no accurate figures exist to show how many part-timers are trained teachers.
Hilary Stone, director of quality and standards at the Further Education National Training Organisation, says colleges are offering development to part-time staff because they recognise that it improves quality. The best colleges provide mentors to new part-timers while more staff are moving to fractional contracts. "There is a clear trend away from relying on hourly-paid staff," she says.
Nadine Cartner, head of policy at the Association for College Management, agrees the attitude of colleges is changing. "It's less acceptable to have large numbers of part-timers without access to staff development, but things still probably haven't improved sufficiently."
Natfhe would like to see things moving faster and has told its regional officials to start negotiating charters at other colleges, based on the Huddersfield model.
"It's becoming more and more difficult to see part-time staff as stop gaps but we need to push the case in more colleges," says Christiane Ohsan, a national official who is leading the campaign. "People are concerned about having desks and being in the telephone directory. From there we can move on to bigger issues."