TEF will mean more exploitation of academics on short-term contracts

Jess Patterson on why she fears the teaching excellence framework will be bad news for early career academics

September 28, 2015
Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science
Source: PA
Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science

Since universities minister Jo Johnson delivered his speech at the Universities UK annual conference, in which he detailed his proposals for a teaching excellence framework, there have been a number of dissenting voices querying what his market-focused framework might mean for the higher education sector.

Crucial to the discussion should be the opinions of those who will be on the front line, teaching on low pay and short-term contracts.

The rate of casualisation in higher education is worrying. As of 2013, more than a third of the academic workforce was employed on a non-permanent basis, with temporary contracts rising by a third between 2010 and 2012. This is the context for the TEF. When Johnson began his critique of current provision on the basis that “teaching is highly variable across higher education”, he neglected to mention that an increasing proportion of this teaching is being delivered by non-permanent staff – often graduate teaching assistants and academics employed on hourly rates.

Last year, Times Higher Education reported that wages fail to reflect the hours worked by GTAs. I’m one such teacher, as well as a University and College Union rep for other GTAs, and I’ve witnessed this problem across a range of departments in both my institution and others. Despite this, GTAs care about students and so continue to do a good job, despite the pressures of our own degrees and, in some cases, the need to work other jobs to pay the rent.

GTAs want to teach well, but the conditions under which we are expected to do this make it much more difficult. A survey conducted by GTAs at King’s College London revealed that 39 per cent of respondents felt that the number of hours that they are contracted to work affects the quality of their marking and feedback.

This is why, when Johnson used his speech to wax lyrical about “inspiring academics who go the extra mile, supporting struggling students, emailing feedback at weekends and giving much more of their time than duty demands”, my Twitter feed was flooded with remarks from angry teachers. How can the minister recommend the continuation of a model in which good teaching is provided on the basis that overworked and poorly paid teachers “go the extra mile”, sometimes to the detriment of their physical and mental health?

Anyway, the “inspiring academics” to whom Johnson referred are chimera. The higher education system attracts high fee paying students with the offer of “big-name” academics who deliver the odd lecture, while the majority of the teaching is delivered by low-cost teachers, exploited for their position at the bottom of the career ladder.

Furthermore, Johnson’s reference to the idea of a “disengagement contract” (the situation in which research-focused academics award students the degree they want in order to get a job in return for “compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees”) again misrepresents the context for the TEF. It suggests that research academics are responsible for delivering teaching, despite the documented rise of “teaching-only” contracts.

Alongside GTAs, much teaching is delivered by academics employed on various forms of precarious contacts. Contrary to Johnson’s imagined disengaged researcher doing the minimum amount of teaching permissible, these academics (quite often early career, and disproportionately women) are trapped in a vicious cycle of temporary contract after temporary contract, leaving them with little to no time to undertake the research essential to securing a more permanent position.

The scapegoat of the uninterested and lazy research focused academic is, I believe, constructed to sustain the Tory manifesto pledge to provide “value for money” for students and taxpayers.

But at what cost would this “value for money” be delivered? To answer this question we don’t need to look very far. The controversy surrounding the University of Warwick’s (now scrapped) plans to introduce “Teach Higher” provided a vision of how this might be done. Warwick’s “commitment to outstanding teaching” was made compatible with its second prerogative of reducing costs, through a sort of “internal outsourcing” that dramatically reduced the rights, and pay, of employees.

Although squashed by successful campaigns, the TEF sets the tone for the viability of such schemes. Moreover, in the climate of the Trade Union bill, the mechanisms by which teachers could resist such changes might be vastly reduced.

While under the TEF institutions may receive “financial incentives”, it’s unlikely that those actually delivering the services will benefit. If we want to improve teaching we need to improve the pay and working conditions of education workers.

Jess Patterson is a PhD student at the University of Manchester, and a postgraduate research rep for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

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