Thursday, 17 November 2016

The haves and the have-nots of the academic world

The Guardian today ran a story on the casualisation of academic staff at UK universities, headlining a Sports Direct comparison. The story is based on a UCU campaign against a lack of security for academic staff. What’s behind the numbers and the issues?

Firstly, the issue. Universities have three types of employment: permanent contracts; fixed term contracts; and ‘atypical’ contracts. Each of these comes in full-time and part-time mode. ‘Atypical’ is a tricky category: there are lots of reasons why. Here’s what HESA have to say about the definition (scroll down and expand 'Terms of employment'  for the source):

"Atypical staff are those whose working arrangements are not permanent, involve complex employment relationships and/or involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider. These may be characterised by a high degree of flexibility for both the work provider and the working person, and may involve a triangular relationship that includes an agent. Source: Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Discussion Document on Employment Status, July 2003, paragraph 23.
In addition to this definition from the DTI, some HE specific guidance has been devised by HESA in consultation with HEIs. Atypical contracts meet one or more of the following conditions:

  • are for less than four consecutive weeks - meaning that no statement of terms and conditions needs to be issued,
  • are for one-off/short-term tasks - for example answering phones during clearing, staging an exhibition, organising a conference. There is no mutual obligation between the work provider and working person beyond the given period of work or project. In some cases individuals will be paid a fixed fee for the piece of work unrelated to hours/time spent,
  • involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider - but not as part of teaching company schemes or for teaching and research supervision associated with the provision of distance learning education,
  • involve a high degree of flexibility often in a contract to work as and when required - for example conference catering, student ambassadors, student demonstrators."

Notice here that of the four special conditions the second and fourth cover a lot of ground. And this is the UCU’s point: teaching a module on an hourly-paid basis counts as atypical; being a tutor bought in to cover a short-term teaching need counts as atypical. These are the hourly-paid lecturers which universities often rely upon.

(It’s worth noting that ‘atypical staff’ can also include PhD students who do some teaching as part of their PhD study. This is a normal part of their PhD; witho7ut this experience they would be hindered in their future career.)

Universities say that they need flexibility: sometimes running a course depends on getting sufficient students to make it worthwhile. In this case, if your staffing cost is flexible, then the threshold for being able to run a course is lower (you don’t have to factor in the risk cost of redundancy if it doesn’t run). On this argument, the possibility of employing people on flexible contracts means that more courses are offered than would otherwise be the case.

The other problem highlighted by UCU is academic staff on fixed-term contracts. Such people have a job with regular hours – they can be full-time or part-time – but the contract has an end date. Legislation means that there has to be a reason for the fixed-term-ness (such as time-limited funding), and universities will argue that most research grants, for instance, are a fixed pot of money, to deliver specific outputs by a certain date. There’s also reasons like maternity cover: a person is needed for a specific period for a specific reason.

So what does the data show? It’s possible to recreate (or nearly so) the UCU data using HESA staffing data. HESA staff table 1 gives you numbers of full-time and part-time academic staff and also atypical academic staff at each university. Table 6 gives the number of academic staff – full-time and part-time – in Teaching only, Teaching and Research, Research only, and Neither teaching nor research roles at each university. And finally table L gives the proportions of staff, across the whole sector, in those same four categories who are on fixed-term contracts. With some simple arithmetic it’s possible to work out how many academic staff at each university have what UCU calls insecure employment – that is, are on a fixed-term contract or an atypical contract.

The headline data is stark.

  • 52.3% of all academic staff – that is 145,575 people - are either on atypical or fixed-term contracts. 


  • 67.4% of staff on ‘Research only’ contracts – 32,488 people – are on fixed term contracts.


  • 54.4% of staff on ‘Teaching only’ contracts – 28,251 people – have fixed term appointments.


  • 35.3% of academic staff on full-time or part-time contracts (that is, excluding those with atypical contracts) are on fixed-term contracts. That’s 70,015 people.

There are some things that the data doesn’t show.

One big one is that fixed term contracts can become a career pattern. 20 or more years of renewed two- or three-year fixed-term contracts is not unusual for researchers. It’s hard (very hard) for people to plan on this basis. Starting a family is a brave option without security of income. Getting a mortgage can be difficult without permanent employment.

A second big question is the proportion of teaching that is done by staff on these contracts. It isn’t unusual for a researcher who has been awarded a large research grant to ‘buy out’ their teaching duties. This can mean an hourly-paid tutor, or a fixed-term part-time role. So teaching, particularly at a research intensive university, may not proportionately be carried out by the faculty whose names you’ll find on the website. This doesn’t mean that the teaching will be bad: the tutors will still be knowledgeable, keen and expert. But is it quite what was expected?

It’s important to be measured. ‘Sports Direct’ are notorious for Victorian working practices; universities are not in the same league. But there are a lot of people who are not making a stable career in academia. They’re working on the margins. They’re the ones without an office, or even a nameplate on a door that students can find. And the data shows that there’s a lot of them about.

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