Everyone agrees that the quality of educational experience in our universities is important, even if we argue about how we define this slippery concept. Yet whatever one thinks “quality” is, there seems to be little emphasis on the role of the staff charged with its delivery.
In the schools sector, research shows that the most important school-based factor, bigger than leadership or facilities, is the teacher. Most of us know this intuitively. The importance of the teacher is made clear daily in the schooling of our own children or grandchildren.
Yet in universities, the academic as teacher is absent from a debate overly focused on structures, performance tables and satisfaction. The primary result of this invisibility is the lack of emphasis on the impact that the university teacher’s working environment has on the quality of the student’s educational experience.
A report produced for Universitas 21 in 2013 said up front what all of us know: namely, that “some UK university departments appear to be staffed by a majority of sessional staff”. Graham Gibbs has noted that in pre-92 universities “the majority of small group teaching was found to be undertaken by teachers other than academics” and that in so-called teaching-oriented institutions “a significant proportion of teaching may be undertaken by what the US terms ‘adjunct faculty’ who may have portfolio teaching careers spanning a number of institutions, with an office in none of them”. In fact, with more than 100,000 teaching staff in UK universities on casual or fixed-term contracts, precarious work is a core part of almost every university’s employment model.
People like me think this matters because I meet so many teachers on their fourth or fifth successive fixed-term contract who are told they cannot have a mortgage because they do not do a “secure” job. I meet people too on “zero hours” contracts who work long hours for low, highly variable pay and who need government tax credits in order to survive.
This is not just a “union” issue; the working conditions of teachers matter to our students too because the conditions the teacher works in are those in which the student learns.
Research by Jenny Chen and Ana Lopes showed that casually employed staff receive inadequate paid time to be able to prepare for classes or to evaluate and mark students’ work. Then there is contact time and feedback. Staff who struggle to fit lesson preparation or marking into their paid hours have even less time to provide the help students need outside the tutorial.
And that brings me back to quality. Does any of this matter? I think it does.
As we debate the Green Paper, there has been much talk about measuring quality. The University and College Union has real anxieties about some of the measures proposed by government. Employment and dropout rates, for example, may say more about where you have come from than your experience at university. And it is difficult to see how expanding the “for profit” sector will enhance quality, however the government chooses to measure it.
Nonetheless I was interested to see the secretary of state ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England, in the recent funding letter, to look at the issue of “staff contracts”. It was in 2001 that the UCU’s predecessor, the Association of University Teachers, asked the then government to produce a “genuine study” of the effects of current casual employment practices on the quality of undergraduate teaching and the AUT did so on the back of pioneering work in the area by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and Colin Bryson.
Fifteen years on, the situation is now worse, not better, not least because universities seem determined to pretend either that the problem does not exist or that, if it does, casual and fixed-term status is somehow beneficial to staff and students.
So let me make three suggestions to assist Hefce in its deliberations. The first is that universities publish the proportion of their teaching staff in each department who are permanent; who have contracts of two years or less; and who are employed on a casual basis. The second is that universities publish what proportion of undergraduate classes in each department are provided by each of the three groups. The third suggestion is that universities publish the basis upon which they employ and reward casual staff, and whether they meet minimum standards for paid hours, professional development, scholarship time and of course paid contact time with students.
The commitment to publish such data will not rid our sector of casualisation. However, it would represent a small first step towards changing the highly exploitative employment model that currently underpins the student experience.
The truth is that I have met many great teachers who are on casual contracts. Yet what they achieve with their students is almost always in spite of the system they are forced to work within.
I believe that students are entitled to know this about how their teachers are treated. It matters at a human level, but it matters to the education they receive too.
Quality means different things to each of us, of course. But most of us would agree that happy, fairly rewarded, secure teachers are better placed to deliver high-quality education, wouldn’t we?
Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.