Staff mark limits to growth

五月 17, 2002

In the fourth of our Pushing 50 series on the promises and prob-lems of a mass higher education system, Harriet Swain looks at how staff shortages could upset the drive to widen access.

There are two problems at the heart of the government's aim to have half of young people in higher education by 2010. The first problem is finding the 400,000 new students that the Department for Education and Skills has calculated are needed to meet this target. This is where the focus has been so far, with £47 million to be spent next year on premiums for every non-traditional student a university recruits. The second - and more neglected - problem is finding the staff to teach them.

Just how serious a problem this is was highlighted in a survey by employers, published last week, that found that 60 per cent of institutions were having difficulties recruiting lecturers. It showed that recruitment and retention were particularly difficult in computing, business, engineering, biological sciences and education, and in some parts of the country, with house prices in the Southeast beyond the means of many lecturers.

Another problem for universities is a rising age profile - more than 28 per cent of academic staff are over 50, and lecturers are more likely to fall into the older age groups and more likely to retire early than research-only staff. Add to these factors salaries that compare increasingly unfavourably with others in the public sector, and it is no wonder that universities struggle to fill vacancies.

What will happen when there are 22,000 more lecturing vacancies to fill? The Association of University Teachers says this is the minimum number of extra staff that will be needed to hit the participation target.

Richard Blackwell, a senior adviser in the Learning and Teaching Support Network's generic centre, says a particular problem is that the subject areas experiencing shortages are those most likely to appeal to the new students the government hopes to attract. He calls it "a double whammy of demand-side growth and supply-side shortage".

Proposed solutions to this conundrum all seem to revolve around either more money or more "flexibility".

First money. The AUT estimates that it will cost more than £750 million to recruit the new lecturers needed and suggests that it will cost £840 million a year to raise existing salaries and close the gender pay gap. Last month, Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association wrote to education secretary Estelle Morris complaining about a 38 per cent cut in the unit of funding since 1989 and claiming that it will be impossible to reach the 50 per cent target without billions more cash.

Jocelyn Prudence, UCEA chief executive, says money is key to recruitment and retention. "We need to ensure we have appropriate reward structures," she says. "We are looking at reforming existing pay structures that offer more flexibility than current areas, for example, market supplements."

Employers and unions agree that more money is needed. The issue of flexibility is not so clear cut. Many say the answer lies in increasing the proportion of academics working part time. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the proportion of academic staff working part time has grown from 8 per cent in 1995 to more than 14 per cent in 2000-01. Blackwell, who is leading a project studying the impact of expansion on part-time work, says it is almost certain to rise more. Although he thinks it likely that the number of hourly paid staff will grow, he also envisages a trend towards fractional appointments.

"The student market can be turbulent," he says. "If institutions find they are down in one subject area in a recruitment round, they often switch to another. Others have to find people quickly. The option of hiring full-time staff is not there in the short term."

But there are problems with part-timers. Inspection reports in further education have raised concerns about their impact on quality. Often part-time workers are not well integrated into departments and have less access to training. They are also less accessible to students - a problem when the sort of students the government wants to recruit are likely to need more, not less, staff attention.

Malcolm Keight, AUT assistant secretary, says: "One problem with part-time staff - and this is not to criticise the staff themselves - is that it is not always the case that the people recruited have the best qualifications for the job. Because recruitment is sometimes a bit ad hoc, quality control is more difficult."

He argues that full-time staff are more likely than part-timers to provide employers with the flexibility they need. "Running around to find someone who has a friend who has a friend who knows about a particular subject is not as efficient as relying on a permanent member of staff."

A potential solution, although anathema to many academics, could be a higher education staff agency. Joanna Martin, who earlier this year took over as managing director of Protocol Professional, formerly Education Lecturing Services, says it is something she is looking at. Further education staff working for ELS said they were stripped of employment rights as colleges transferred them to agency contracts, and the agency has few friends in the sector.

But Martin has vowed to raise quality. And once she has sorted out the college sector, she wants to turn her attention to universities. "I do not see an exact transfer across the sector because higher education is very different," she says. "But I think there is a role for the sort of service we offer." She says it is likely to be part of a separate organisation and will involve "making good quality teaching staff available to universities on a more flexible basis and working with lecturers to help them develop their careers and skills".

Institutions may be attracted to Protocol Professional's services because employing academics part time is no longer as easy as it was. New employment regulations mean that part-timers have the same rights as others when it comes to holidays, sick pay, maternity leave, overtime and rates of pay. Blackwell suggests that some departments may increasingly cause problems for their universities by continuing to employ people on an ad hoc basis, not realising that they are committing themselves to paying if these staff became sick or claim for paid holidays.

As a result, institutions are starting to take more central control over employment. If universities have to give more rights to part-time workers, they are likely to want more in return. This, Blackwell says, could be a win-win situation. "Once you have a contract, you can start to specify more broadly what people do - in matters such as staff development, attending certain meetings, giving certain support to students." This will be particularly true as demands on staff increase. Academics are expected to carry out widening participation work, such as running summer schools and mentoring, as part of their general terms of employment. But the arrangements are rarely formal.

This is just one of the issues university human resources departments face in dealing with expansion. Gus Pennington, an associate and former chief executive of the Higher Education Staff Development Agency, says any serious engagement with widening participation entails procedural and structural problems. "Managing the complexity of contractual relationships is something universities are going to have to work out," he says. More use of modular courses and recruitment of more needy students demand staff-to-student ratios for which there is no money in an expanded system. The answer, Pennington says, is to "cross-subsidise" teaching by having lectures address up to 300 students, in order to free staff for small tutorial groups.

"For new staff, there is the expectation that their repertoire of teaching and learning skills is going to be wider," he says. "They will be able to give everything from the big set-piece lecture down to one-to-one supervision." Greater use of technology and e-learning to deliver courses and to support face-to-face teaching is something that most institutions are also examining, though few believe it will solve financial or staffing constraints.

Nor will it help solve the problem of shortages in specific areas. Here, more use of practitioners could be one answer. Hesa statistics suggest that the number of academics with no formal academic qualifications has risen slightly but steadily in the past five years. Blackwell suggests that without a strategy in subjects such as information technology and business management, recruitment may end up being entirely part time in less prestigious institutions to allow people to combine lucrative jobs in the private sector with university work. Liz Allen, national official in the universities department of lecturers' union Natfhe, suggests that older students and those with a greater eye on work after university would appreciate more staff with experience outside university.

These are all practical implications for staff of the government's target. But for some there is also a philosophical problem. They just do not believe that increasing the number of people in higher education is in the best interests of the sector or the students. Having to lead remedial classes in maths and literacy or to teach students how to learn independently is, they believe, not how they should be spending their time.

Allen, whose union represents those most likely to agree with the principles of an inclusive system, warns: "Don't make the assumption that all academics are on board with widening participation, because they are not."



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